One of my favorite things about working at the bookstore is when I notice young customers browsing our antiquarian books. There is the hesitant, respectful way they will pick up a poetry volume. They marvel at the gilt pages, the exquisite plates, illustrations. They’ll read a few lines, and as the magic of Shelley or Tennyson or Browning reels them in, they’ll put their backpacks down, then lean against the wall, unable to stop reading. I smile to myself: Welcome to the Rabbit Hole…
My hands did numb to beauty
as they reached into Death and tightened!
O sovereign was my touch
upon the tan-inks’s fragile page!
Quickly, my eyes moved quickly,
sought for smell for dust for lace
for dry hair!
I would have taken the page
breathing in the crime!
For no evidence have I wrung from dreams–
yet what triumph is there in private credence?
Often, in some steep ancestral book,
when I find myself entangled with leopard-apples
and torched-skin mushrooms,
my cypressean skein outreaches the recorded age
and I, as though tipping a pitcher of milk,
pour secrecy upon the dying page.
[Listen to an audio clip of W.H. Auden reading “On Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics”]