Everyone is supposed to have at least one good book in them. My mother did. She wrote poems. I don't know when exactly she started but I suspect it wasn't until she was in her late fifties at least. She only ever mentioned them towards the end of her life but never let us read them. After she died I found two old school jotters in which she had written her poems – one was my sister's, the other belonged to my sister's best friend. There weren't many of them, barely enough for a slim chapbook, that's all. But once we got back home, my wife transcribed all of them onto her PC, made them look pretty and printed out the tiniest run, five copies, one for us, one for my daughter, one for my mother-in-law and one each for my siblings. She called the collection Doodlings, a word taken from one of the poems. It seemed appropriate.
In them she talks about her family, her love of animals, nature and the realisation that she wasn't going to be around much longer. The one that reminds me the most of her is one about a daddy longlegs she put outside. Later, feeling guilty, she tried to let it back in but it ran away. Mum then couldn’t sleep and crept downstairs to sit by the window waiting to see if she could see it and rescue the poor thing from freezing outside:
I'd thrown him out and don't know why
Now the poor thing will surely die
So I opened the window very wide
Thought I'd get him back inside
But lo and behold what did I see
Well nothing where he used to be
I'm finding now I cannot sleep
To the window I must creep
The style is old-fashioned, the technique unspectacular but none of that is important. I will treasure them. I wonder how many other people out there are sitting there with jotters like that.
One of my favourite authors is Richard Brautigan. I may have mentioned this before. I don’t mention him nearly as often as I name drop Beckett and that saddens me because I think he is a wholly underrated author. I've never come across any of his books in the UK other than once in a second hand shop in Saltcoats. And that is a shame. Most writers have authored a book that I might be tempted to read twice, even three times, but there isn’t a thing by Brautigan that I couldn’t read over and over again and never tire of. My favourite is In Watermelon Sugar. I don’t think it's necessarily his best book but it was the first I read and as such will always have a special place in my mind.
In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar. I'll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.
Wherever you are, we must do the best we can. It is so far to travel, and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon sugar. I hope this works out.
He could easily have written about the remorse felt over putting a daddy longlegs out a window to die.
MY INSECT FUNERAL
When I was a child
I had a graveyard
where I buried insects
and dead birds under
a rose tree.
I would bury the insects
in tin foil and match boxes.
I would bury the birds
in pieces of red cloth.
It was all very sad
and I would cry
as I scooped the dirt
into their small graves
with a spoon.
Baudelaire would come
and join in
my insect funerals,
saying little prayers
the size of
There is an innocence about his writing and there was an innocence about my mum. She would have enjoyed his style though maybe not always his subject matter, but she would never have read anything by him because it wasn't real. She never read fiction nor did she write it. Her poems were all biographical.
In that second hand shop I bought three Brautigan books: In Watermelon Sugar, Willard and his Bowling Trophies and The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. I read them in that order. I think my second-favourite novel is The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 despite its unwieldy title. It tells the story of a librarian in a most unusual Californian library, a library that is open twenty-four hours a day (which is in itself unusual) but it is a receiving library for what is described beautifully in the book as "the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing." The books are not catalogued using the standard Dewey Decimal Classification system; rather the authors select for themselves where they want their book to sit. Here are a few examples:
THE EGG LAYED TWICE by Beatrice Quinn Porter. The author said this collection of poetry summed up the wisdom she had found while living twenty-six years on a chicken ranch in San Jose.
"It may not be poetry," she said. "I never went to college, but it's sure as hell about chickens."
THE CULINARY DOSTOEVSKY by James Fallon. The author said the book was a cookbook of recipes he had found in Dostoevsky's novels.
"Some of them are very good," he said. "I've eaten everything Dostoevsky ever cooked."
He even gave himself a cameo:
MOOSE by Richard Brautigan. The author was tall and blond and had a long yellow moustache that gave him an anachronistic appearance. He looked as if he would be more at home in another era.
This was the third or fourth book he had brought to the library. Every time he brought in a new book he looked a little older, a little more tired. He looked quite young when he brought in his first book. I can't remember the title of it, but it seems to me the book had something to do with America.
"What's this one about?" I asked, because he looked as if he wanted me to ask him something.
"Just another book," he said.
I guess I was wrong about him wanting me to ask him something.
My mum's book would have been at home there though she would have chided the librarian for living in sin and probably told his girlfriend to get some clothes on. You can read the entire first chapter on-line here and it seems a young lady called Olivia Pepper is intending to put on a dramatisation of the work in the San Francisco Bay Area later this year or possibly early in 2009 according to an e-mail I've recently received from her. You can find out about it on her MySpace page.
In homage to Richard Brautigan, The Abortion's concept was put into practice in the form of the Brautigan Library. It was housed originally in a section of the larger Fletcher Free Library in downtown Burlington, Vermont but there are plans some day to relocate to the Presidio Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. The library accepts only unpublished manuscripts. The sad thing is the library can’t be visited any more. It’s a bit in limbo. The San Francisco Public Library might be the new home but nothing has been confirmed yet. It would be a shame to see this project die a death.
At the time Fletcher co director Amber Collins told a reporter: "For the first couple of years it was here, we had people begging us to allow their books up here. Some people sneaked in and put their books on the shelf," she added, pointing to a book with a different size and binding from all the others, titled Strive for Mediocrity: A Memoir. "It still amazes me how many people I'll find here," she continues, "People are fascinated by the idea that books shouldn't be regulated by the fact that you have to have a publisher." - The Boston Globe
Jessamyn West describes the library when it was in Vermont as follows:
I don't know the origins of the Brautigan Library here in Burlington, but the plaque said "The American Forever, etc. presents The Brautigan Library A home for unpublished literature" There is also a note from Garry Trudeau on a nearby wall that says something to the effect of "neat idea, don't quit your day jobs."
The books are mainly typewritten with the occasional handwritten or word processed book. They have almost all been bound with dark blue library binding. They are loosely grouped into categories such as Humour, Nature and Meaning of Life. I'm not sure who decided on the classification system.
There is a small card catalogue on top of the poetry dispenser which has the books categorized according to Title and Author, but the cards are in no particular order. Well, they are grouped according to first letter, but the letters themselves are out of order. It's hard to tell if this is purposeful or accidental but you could look at every book in a long afternoon, so it hardly matters.
Some of the works there already include the short-story collection Sterling Silver Cockroaches, the economic treatise Three Essays Advocating the Abolition of Money and the poetry collection A Shoebox to Hold the Unknown.
You can read a nice blog about Todd Lockwood the guy who decided to start the ball rolling after watching Field of Dreams. in which he recalls:
A few months ago, we received a two-page manuscript from a woman who drives a school bus. It was filled with spelling errors and incomplete sentences. While trying to decide whether or not to send it back for corrections, I finally just read it, as it was written. The short story tells of sunlight beaming through a snowstorm "like a diamond patch." So beautiful was this moment that she pulled the school bus off the side of the road so her passengers could enjoy it. I learned something in reading her story: Ideas with vision will usually survive a less-than-perfect presentation. But the most elaborate presentation in the world is no substitute for vision.
An online-version, although it is not connected to the Burlington library, can be found at the Brautigan Virtual Library where you can deposit your book. It only has seventeen titles listed but looks like it's still on the go.
A WRITER IN EXILE FROM MUSKOKA by Martin Avery. This is a sequence of poems written to celebrate the prospect of going home, moving back to Muskoka, after a quarter century of living like a writer in exile from Muskoka.
THE BALLAD OF ANGELA'S STORY by Larry Kimmel. "A single narrative poem in ballad form, about "Angela" and her account(s) of her day's adventure(s)"
There is another venture, a British initiative in the same vein, called Library of Unwritten Books.
Inspired by the non-selective ethos of the Brautigan library, Caroline Jupp and Sam Brown founded Library of Unwritten Books in 2002. The books are collected through random encounters in parks, city streets and public places, and by invitations to visit literature festivals, public libraries and community centres. People are prompted to spontaneously record their unrealised ideas, fictional tales, and personal histories. There is no selection procedure and all contributors to the library receive a free copy of their own unwritten book. Limited edition mini books are published from transcripts of the interviews, which are made available to readers at exhibitions and special events. Touring book-boxes also display the books at everyday venues such as cafés, pubs, libraries and launderettes.
I think it is a lovely idea. I liked MY SECRET MARBLES by Marble Mya (aged 9) best. I think that would have been my mum's favourite too. She loved children, children and animals especially cats; grownups she could take or leave. There's a nice BBC article about the library here.
In 1984, at age 49, Richard Brautigan died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot-wound to the head in Bolinas, California. My mum would have been annoyed at him; suicide is wrong. My mum died in 1998 from pneumonia. Since this obviated the need for her to die from the incurable cancer from which she was suffering, I really couldn’t find it within myself to be annoyed with her.
Here's a poem I wrote for Richard Brautigan:
THE HUMAN RACE
(for Richard Brautigan)
A man cannot lose what he never had
but he can give up trying to get it.
Just walk off the track.
Come, join the rest of us on the bleachers.
It's that easy.
Catch your breath now.
It's too hot to run.
I've heard say parallel lines never meet.
Sometimes they seem to – in the distance –
they disappear over the horizon
so no one knows for sure.
Friday, 25 May 2001
And here's one I wrote for my mum:
My mother made do almost every day of her life.
There wasn't that much to the dish. To tell you the truth,
Mum could make do
with almost nothing at all.
She'd put on the pot and just let it simmer for hours.
And all of my life so far I've tried to do the same
but I find mine
always leaves a bitter taste.
I wish I knew what her secret ingredient was.
Friday, 18 July 2003
A shame that neither of them will read them. And a shame they won't write any more books too.