Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

An Ode To The Fetishistic Pleasures of Collecting

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There’s a scene I love in the film, High Fidelity (actually, there are many scenes that I love in that film, but this one seems the most apropos at the moment). It’s the one where Rob—vinyl-phile, record-store owner, and recently dumped boyfriend—is hanging out in his bohemian apartment, amid the stormy, rolling sea of his record collection, his albums strewn in piles all over the floor. Midday, Dick, Rob's sensitive and uber-geeky employee pops by and surveys the chaos. Rob explains that he is in the middle of reorganizing his collection. What order are you putting the records in, Dick wants to know. "Alphabetical?" "Biographical," Rob replies.

I laughed at this scene because my own uber-geeky (and sensitive and handsome) mathematician husband, Stephen Watson (how can I justly write a blog for an entire month and fail to mention my husband?), also possesses a rather large collection of vinyl, and, it seems to me, that he enjoys sorting through his albums at least as much as he enjoys listening to them. Stephen's records are, by the way, organized according to several complicated criteria: period, genre, artist. I find it somehow cool that, within his large stash of modern dance music from Africa (Tabu Ley Rochereau, Mbilia Bel, Fela, Salif Keita, Alpha Blondy, etc...), he's also organized the albums geographically; the informed world-beat fan can thus look over the shelf of African records and note that the collection moves across the continent from west to east, then north to south.

The collecting of anything--records, CD's, teacups, silver spoons, stamps, coins--naturally demands the concomitant labour of organizing. And most collectors seem to derive a fetishistic pleasure in fondling their treasured objects. (Hey, what's the point of possessing all that neat stuff if you don't get to play with it?)

Well, I confess, I'm also a bit of a collector. Of poetry books, of course. I pick them up at launches, readings, and new and used booksellers, at home and away. Hunting for books of modern poetry used to be a challenging undertaking. For poetry is often published in small. limited editions, and negligibly marketed and distributed. The Internet has, of late, made the purchase of even obscure books a whole lot easier; nevertheless, I still take special satisfaction in discovering a book, written by a poet whom I already know, or, even better, by one whose work I suddenly discover, while perusing a bookstore shelf. I still remember how excited I was to discover in 1996, for the first time, The Lemon Tree & Other Poems (Snailpress, 1995) by the South African poet, Tatamkhulu Afrika, in a used bookshop in Yeoville, Johannesburg. Or to find Winter Poems (Allied Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1980) and The Keeper of the Dead (Oxford University Press, 1982) by Keki N Daruwalla in a literal hole-in-the-wall in Bombay. Or stumble upon Runes by James K. Baxter in a bookshop in Auckland, New Zealand; or Lawrence Joseph's Curriculum Vitae (University of Pittsburg Press, 1988) in Balfour Books, right here at home.

In the past week or so, I've become become reacquainted with the books in my collection. I finally decided that I'd better put them in some sort of order. I made this decision when I had a sudden hankering to read again some of the poems in Ricardo Sternberg's The Invention of Honey (Vehicle Press, 1990). I looked carefully in both cases where I store my poetry books (the one in my study--which, as some of you know, is an 11-foot-tall, glass-doored, crown-capped, solid oak masterpiece, crafted more than 20 years ago by artist Gord Pederan, and just how Stephen and I came to acquire it is a story of luck worthy of another blog!--and the junky one in my bedroom) to no avail. I knew it was there, but I just couldn't spot it amid the completely disorganized shelves.

So, this month, while I am blogging about the writing life, I am also sorting. No, I'm not arranging the books geographically, or biographically. Just alphabetically by the poet's last name. The process is, I confess, taking me longer than it should, because, each time I pick up a book, I want to sit down and read my favourite poems from it. Nevertheless, the next time you come over to visit, and ask me to find, say, Hymns in Darkness (Oxford University Press, 1976) by Nissim Ezekiel, I should be able to go to the "E's" and fetch it immediately.

And, yes, I have found Ricardo Sternberg's book. And, I've been savouring his delicate, witty poems of bees, angels, alchemists and love.

"The Invention of Honey"

from the start:
next to nothing
is what we know
about the bee.

Some have argued
that the sun cried,
the tears fell,
they took wings,
took heart and went to work.

Others have called this
poetry --
dismissing it
as hatched by men
with their heads
in the moon:
the bee is an ant
promoted for good behaviour,
given wings, a brighter suit
and the key to honey.

Very well.
The debate continues
and I do not know.

The bee is to me
as I must seem to her
a complete mystery.

small engines running on honey

striped angels who fell for sweetness

stars shooting into the corolla of a petalled sun

Ricardo Sternberg


Thanks for your kind note on my post a while back.

I thought you'd get a kick out of hearing that I was the "Green Day Girl" in High Fidelity. As in the line, "Hey... is that the new Green Day?" Funny.

The Green Day Girl! Wow! You are a hero in my house! My uber-geeky husband, son, and I have watched High Fidelity so many times that we know the lines by heart...We'll check out your scene again.

But, truly, I loved your blogs. Hope the muse is still being kind to you.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Karen Shenfeld

Toronto poet Karen Shenfeld is the author of The Law of Return (Guernica Editions, 1999) and The Fertile Crescent (Guernica Editions, 2005). Her work has also appeared in well-known journals published in Canada, the United States, South Africa and Bangladesh. Her personal documentary, Il Giardino, The Gardens of Little Italy, was screened at the 2007 Planet in Focus Environmental Film & Video Festival.

Go to Karen Shenfeld ’s Author Page