By Keith Madsen
I’m standing on the top of the world
Though others less schooled might say
The top of the steps
Of the Multnomah County Library, Portland, Oregon,
The top of the world
Is neither bitter nor cold,
The warm air of my insulated soul rises above it all
Rises above the shivers of uncovered hearts on windy street
Rises above the teeth chatter of icy word
Rises above the distance
Those below see as safe.
The secret of my warmth
Emanates from the friends within
The hallowed walls of this repository
Friends not of flesh, but of word
Friends who speak with the gentleness of
Ink and paper
I will myself to know them all
I will myself to carefully peruse
In this bastion of learning
In this library where I live.
This poem launches my morning. Each word the same each day. One change of tense, one alternate word, one variance of cadence, and I wouldn’t know which door to enter, which place to sit, which book to read. I would have to go back and start my day all over again. The words begin their flow toward my mind, starting with my first breath of morning air, drawn in from my sleeping place underneath the Burnside Bridge. By the time I finish my ascent to the top of the library steps, they are flowing onto my tongue, and I whisper them to my soul, to let my tender inner core know I have arrived at home. You notice I did not say, “I have arrived from home”, because the library is my home. I have a right to claim it as my home because I am there more than anyone else in this city; more than the people who work there, because they have shifts; more than the people who use it, but have jobs elsewhere they must attend to; more than the so-called patrons and county officials who made the decision to close it on certain days, closing ME out, but are hardly ever there themselves.
This library is my life. Do I not have a right to life?
People judge me. They do. They think that because I wear second-hand clothes that often do not fit or match (I know they don’t match – do you think I am blind?), that I am unschooled and ignorant.
Do they comprehend Stephen Hawking’s argument for a Universe closed in on itself, which he makes in A Brief History of Time?
Do they understand what Paul Farmer says about how our country’s policies have contributed to the problems in Haiti and other underdeveloped countries?
Have they wrestled with grace and legalism in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables?
Do they know what Dostoevsky’s novels meant to people seeking faith in Russia under Communism?
They think they know what is happening in Iran and the Middle East. But do they even know who Mohammed Mossadegh was? Do they know Iran used to be Persia, and Cyrus the Persian was the one who freed the people of Israel from bondage and sent them back to rebuild their home country? Do they even remember what happened in Iran-Contra?
But they call me ignorant. They say,
“Mister Yeats, he speaks of his life in a poem
And the words don’t even
Thus saith the masses addicted to the poetry of Hallmark.
As I look out at those masses from the top of the library steps I just want to scream; I want to scream, “Stop running! Learn the TRUTH!” But I know they would never pay attention. They might throw a dollar or two in my direction, thinking that is what I want (and what else do these bums want, anyway?), but they would never be so generous with giving their minds, with giving their ears, with giving what I want above all else.
So I turned from my searching and ran for shelter.
“Hey, Mister Yeats!” said the young man who unlocked the doors. “How are you doing today?”
“An answer to the status of the moment
Lies not in that instantly evaporating breath of time,
But in the million moments before, caustically churning out
The billion fearfully chaotic moments after,
And in the time one takes
Humbly off-balance, but alert,
To envision them all.”
The young man paused and looked into my eyes. “Okay. Well, I’ll have to think on that a while, won’t I?” And he moved on.
Why do I even bother? They all want plain speaking, when all I can offer is a flow of feeling which comes from beyond me.
The Peacemaker came up from behind me, the second person from the street to enter. He reached up to put his hand on my shoulder, but paused short of that goal as he saw me already flinching.
“Not wishing to intrude, Mister Yeats,” he said, “but I liked your entry poem today. I would have given it an ‘A’. Do you ever write them down?”
Why was he asking that? To judge me? I shook my head.
“Well, I am a fan,” he said, “a fan of poetry, and of yours in particular. Just wanted you to know.” He moved on.
At least the Peacemaker listens to me in his small, inadequate way. I know many of the people in the library, and none of them want to listen to me at all. I’m not sure why. Intimidated, perhaps.
I quickly found my place in my reading; not in one particular book, but in the stacks of books. I was working my way through section 215, “Science and Religion.” I was now ready for my next selection, Frances Collins’ The Language of God. All about DNA, arguments for Creation, and how faith and science relate. The book would give a contrasting perspective to Stephen Hawking, so I was looking forward to it.
I wasn’t five pages into the book when an entire street family sat down next to me. Understand that when I say “street family,” I don’t mean an actual family that had been thrown out on the street, but rather a variety of homeless people who had decided to be a family to each other while in their transient state. I had encountered a number of such families, but I had spurned that direction myself. Didn’t need it. My books were my father, mother, sister and brother.
Anyway, I had encountered this street family before, and they all talked like magpies, even in a library designed as a sanctuary against such garrulous interference. I tolerated it for about five minutes before putting down my book and shooting them my most vitriolic glare.
“Dude!” said the effeminately-dressed black man around whom this family seemed to cluster. “Ya musta smoked ya’self some really nasty stuff, ‘cuz it seems to be oozing outa yo eyeballs!” The others looked my way and nodded agreement.
Having not been heard by my eyes, I spoke with my words:
Empty of all sound
Full of opportunity to hear
Full of uncluttered windows to the world
Full of the gentleness of void
It does not penetrate brutishly
But flows soothingly into the soul
Massaging, eliciting, caressing, inviting
Until you are lured into a different world
A world outside your own inner darkness
A world you robbed from me
When you stole
One of the teenage girls sat wide-eyed with her mouth open.
“Wow!” she said softly. “That’s so deep! I wish I were deep…”
“Space Princess,” said a young black girl who was part of the group, “ain’t no way you wanna be deep. If you was deep, ya would be totally lost to us, because ya would never find yo way out of ya own haid! Hell, we would have to send someone from Search and Rescue into yo little brain, and girl, they’ve got enough to do already! Ain’t that true, Emi-Lou?”
“’Fraid so, Camille” said a particularly attractive teenage girl to my left.
The girl who had been referred to as ‘Space Princess’ furrowed her brow for a moment. “That’s true…” she said quite seriously. Then her eyes widened. “Maybe I should buy a new hat instead.”
Everyone looked her way seeking an understanding of her last statement, but as far as I could see, no one found so much as a clue. Still the girl I now knew as Camille made an effort. “Girl, no one knows what’s in that little noggin o’ yours, but it’s true at least a hat would cover it up, so you go for it.”
“I know I don’ understand so well dee English,” said a Hispanic woman at the end of the table, “but I t’ink dees man he say for us to cierra la boca – how you say in Anglish? -- shut up our mouths!”
I sighed in relief.
“The miracles of Lourdes and Turin
The water into wine, the river into blood, the dew-formed manna
The lame walking, the deaf speaking and the blind freed to see --
All these pale next to this:
I have been understood
By a woman.”
“Okay, that’s war!” said Camille, standing up. “One thing I know when I hear it is an insult to my gender. Maria, we sistas o’ color need to get it on, ‘cuz our white sistas here, they got no ghetto in ‘em; so Maria, stand and deliver!”
The black teen grabbed me by the collar and pulled me to my feet. Did I mention this was a rather LARGE young woman? And although Maria was not as large, she most certainly looked street-hardened. She now also stood and glared at me with her arms crossed.
“All right you people,” came a quiet, but authoritative voice from behind me, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” A librarian.
“Hey!” said Camille, crossing her arms and looking at me. “We didn’t start the fire, if ya know what I’m sayin’!”
“I don’t care what you’re saying, and I don’t care who started it,” said the tall, masculine-looking librarian. “All of you – out!”
My eyes widened and my heart raced.
“Cut out my heart
With a finely honed letter opener
Cast me o’er the rail
So I fall on my neck on hallowed marble banister
Hurl me through a shattering window to the streets below,
But do not,
Exile me from my home while living,
From the friends gathered here
From the books
That warm and nurture
Camille rolled her eyes and looked over at the librarian. “He talk like that all the time, I guess. Must be a disease er somethin’.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen him before,” said the librarian, speaking quietly. “And I don’t care. All of you, out!”
The girl Camille had called “Emi-Lou” looked over at me and gave me a half-smile. Then she leaned my way and whispered. “You know they let you check out books and take them with you, don’t you?”
No poetry flowed, and my heart raced in panic. I would have to face a personal onslaught armed only with empty, impotent prose.
“Take them with me where?”
I’m standing on the top of the world
Though others might say
Only the top of the steps
Of the Multnomah County Library, Portland, Oregon,
I see nothing, nothing, nothing
But the frigid bottom
To which I must now
I had never had a need for a departure poem, and so this adaptation was the best I could do. A soft punch on the shoulder interrupted my thoughts. It was Camille.
“Yo, Dude! Look, my friends are all sayin’, hell, like it’s all our fault you out here, so maybe you should hang with us. I mean, if ya want to ‘n all.”
I looked over at the others. They didn’t look hostile, but how could you tell with teenagers and others of today’s unschooled masses?
“I don’t know…”
Camille turned and walked away. “Okay, I tried--”
“Camille!” I was in such shock that I didn’t pick up which of the other teenage girls said this.
“I tried!” Camille protested. “What do ya want from me? I ain’t beggin’ no white dude to sit his white ass down next to mine, that’s fer sure!”
The statement took me by surprise. Fear of rejection was something I was more used to feeling in my own heart than hearing in the words of another speaking about me.
“Out of the darkness
Of solitary cave
Out of the quiet of dripping water
And self-generated echo
You call me
And I creep
To the edge of threat
To risk hello
To risk abyss
Camille stared into my eyes and then cocked her head slightly to the right, while narrowing her eyes to slits. “I’m not really sure,” she said, “but I think I heard a ‘yes’ in there somewhere. What you think, Emi-Lou?”
The attractive teen came up and held out her hand. “Name’s actually Emily.” I shook it. “And maybe you can bring your books. Tell us all about them and your poetry?”
I had checked out two books and I held them close to my chest like a swaddled baby. I glanced down the library steps again at the street and foot traffic below. Everyone was going somewhere, most in a hurry. I think it was the speed that made my stomach tighten up. Or perhaps it was that, of all the many directions people were heading, I hadn’t the least idea which one I might choose for that day. Normally, the only time I was out on the street was when the library was closed. On those occasions I tried to stay away from both the shadowy places which bred assault, and the even more frightening well-lit benches and plazas which bred conversation.
I looked back over at Emily. She smiled a relaxed smile.
“These friends I have are bound
But not to me
I share them with you
If you brave to share yourself
Bravely, openly, tenderly
And so I descended from the top of the world.
I can’t say I was always comfortable. When this family sits, where should I sit? When I could return to the library, would I return alone? But most of all there was the conversation.
“How in the hell do you do that?” said Camille later that day after I had spoken.
“Do what?” I said tentatively, fearfully.
“How do ya jes – I don’t know – jes spout off a poem, all neat and pretty like that?”
I could tell from her eyes she really wanted to know, but I had to suppress my initial lyrical reaction, because I knew it would not help. I took a deep breath and relaxed. I let the thought in my head come to my tongue slowly.
“What is difficult…isn’t doing it,” I said. “What is difficult for me is…is NOT doing it.”
The wonder was, she understood.