[Editorial Note: John
W. Marshall and his wife, Christine, own a poetry bookstore near the University
of Washington called Open Books: A Poem Emporium. They carry new/used/out-of-print
poetry and related books and happily host poetry readings. John’s
column from the "poetry frontier" has graced the e-pages of Switched-on
Gutenberg for several consecutive issues. We are thankful for
his wit and grateful for his insights.]
The customer's name was Gerry and he came bowling into the bookstore one afternoon with enough energy to embarrass a squirrel in heat. Gerry was a short, thick, spry guy somewhere in his fifties, wearing a nicely cut brown suit and a lovely, loudish silk tie. I remember what he wore because that was pretty much his uniform, and how we saw him for months to come. "So where's all your poetry?" he asked with irrepressible glee. Later, carrying an armload of books, he said confided, "Poetry saved my life."
Poetry saved my life. Christine and I hear that at the bookstore every now and then, and there's a common profile for the people who say it. It will be a man or woman most likely between the age of forty and sixty. The story will be that they had a severe, mortality-reminding kind of trauma--the loss of a loved one or an injury to themselves--that left them adrift in this world. There are people adrift all over. Some latch onto drink or religion, things that help numb them to their plight or give them a sense of having direction. Some latch on to poetry.
Gerry continued to come into the store around once a week for a number of months, always chatty and vibrant, with a voracious and only slightly discriminating desire to read, write, and learn about poetry. He told us his story in his first few visits. Gerry had had a bout with cancer and had been convinced he was going to die. At some point in his treatment he found a poem that moved him so much it turned his life around. I believe it was an Emily Dickinson poem, but I don't think I asked which one. Sometimes people's stories are told so compulsively, like the Ancient Mariner's tale, that listening is the only response.
Gerry’s cancer had gone into remission and he was back at his job--a marine oil salesman. We saw him on his lunch breaks, and sometimes on Saturdays. The word salesman in Gerry's case cannot be overstated: he was present, gleeful, and forceful to a degree I rarely see. And he taught me a lesson in sales I won't forget.
Once when he and I were gabbing I told him about a cassette tape I had not ordered that was probably really good. It was a recording of the poet H. D. reading with a symphony. I thought it cost too much, at something like twelve dollars for a 14-minute tape. Not that the bookstore couldn't afford it, but that the customers would think it cost too much. This was years ago, before 12 dollars became what seems like the base price for poetry. Gerry took a tone with me you'd most likely hear from a junior high teacher. He said it wasn't my business to decide what something was worth to him. He said if we had that cassette right then he'd buy it and that it might even be worth twenty dollars to him. This hit me hard. He was right and I was condescending toward my customers, trying to protect them. That changed my approach to retail for the better. In a way Gerry saved my retail life.
Gerry kept coming in, kept visiting and shopping. Then we stopped seeing him completely. Weeks went by. Had we done something to offend him? What was up? I had his phone number, but he didn't have any books on hold. I feel like there's a line between store-keeper and customer which must be respected, and I didn't want him to think I was after more of his money. Still, I called with some pretense and left a message on his machine.
A few days later we saw him. He came in sporting a Fedora, took it off right away, and showed us his newly bald head. The cancer was back. He was undergoing treatment. Though his energy level was lessened, he was the same vibrant character. We had a nice visit, but with a sad tinge. We didn't see him again.
One morning, reading the paper and drinking my requisite cup of coffee, his name leapt out at me from the obituary section. It was a surprise, a jolt, though it probably shouldn't have been. Christine and I went to his memorial service. A photo-copied collection of his poems was given to everyone there. We listened as a large number of his friends and family got up and told stories about Gerry. The stories deepened our experience of him, and we were very glad we went.
This is a difficult column to write because
it reminds me of my mortality. Poetry will not save anyone's mortal
life. Of course not. But it can deepen a life. Emily
Dickinson is a relative of mine, not in a family tree way, but I know she
is because of what she wrote. She has extended my reach in this life,
she has strengthened my grip. She and countless other poets have
saved my temporal life from being small, from being numb, from being dull.
Maybe that's what Gerry meant, and maybe that's what others mean when they
come in and say, "Poetry saved my life."
Copyright 1999, John W. Marshal
John W. Marshall co-owns Open Books: A Poem Emporium (2414 N. 45th St., Seattle, WA 98103 / 206.633.0811). His poetry has appeared most recently in Poetry, Beloit Poetry Journal, Talisman, and Hayden's Ferry Review. He is a former editor of the literary magazine Fine Madness.