Edited and introduced by Gibson Fay-LeBlanc.

On New Year’s Day, here is a poem in which the speaker looks back on the person he was by way of the ephemera that falls out of his old books: “feathers, letters, fortunes, / tickets….” I love the humor and humility that he brings to what he finds and that carries through to the “hilarious relief” felt in the final lines, which I won’t spoil.

That humor and humility is all the more impressive if we consider that this poem was written by someone who has lived a good deal of his life in and around books. Robert Farnsworth has for 25 years taught writing and literature at Bates College, and many of his students have gone on to their own writing lives. Farnsworth has published three collections, most recently, Rumored Islands (Harbor Mountain Press, 2010). He lives with his wife in Greene.


By Robert Farnsworth

Codices, caxtons, concordances–

your books, dusted, rearranged,

reshelved. But it’s what falls

out of them most fascinates:

Feathers, letters, fortunes,

tickets, baseball, post- and birth-

day cards stashed among the savored

or as-yet-unfinished pages. What

would get you back to that one?

A prison term perhaps, or the long

convalescence you have sometimes

thought you craved. The hands

that left these scraps behind, though,

aren’t yours anymore. So you’d

have to start again. The half or

meant-to-be-read ones keep their

air of offering, while others

instantly flash their best ideas

or scenes across the mind. They

were so you. Or vice-versa.

And into all these various books

someone (who had been you)

had stuffed the quotidian confetti

of times when a volume went

with you in a bag. Finding these

was imagining a prior life,

a boy’s life, which didn’t quite

imagine this one. Fossil life,

shadow life, descanted over someone’s

lasting words. Then, slipped down

toward the binding of some Dinesen,

a dozen lines of your own. Lines,

not notes. Whether prompted or just

tucked there, certainly ‘writing’.

So earnest, so intended beside

the weird souvenirs, those sketchy

on-the-wing suggestions, lively

and transient as sparrows. Nothing

even to pity in those lines, seen

clearly at last in the company

of leavings. Which, of course,

you leave (this time deliberately)

behind, interleaved with those pages

you’d read and kept and meant to read,

like fingers locked in prayer; of old

allegiances the lost bright flags.

You leave them all, everything but

your own lines, which, with hilarious

relief, you tear up, very small.

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc is Portland’s poet laureate. This column is produced in collaboration with the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Poem copyright © 2011 Robert Farnsworth. It appeared first in PLOUGHSHARES 2011 and appears here by permission of the author.

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