Image of shelter


Encyclopedia Britannica

Hidden in the basement shadows, stacked neatly
beside a mound of old cardboard boxes
and a rolled-up rug that smelled bad:
the sum of human knowledge, circa 1963,
in twenty-four volumes -- A to Zygote,
plus index. Piled with the trash
of a hundred and twenty apartments,
it sat abandoned. I wondered:
Who could throw an encyclopedia away?
To own the volumes that catalogue knowledge
is to claim knowledge itself as your own --
available for the essays or poems
you will someday surely wake up inspired to write,
or (more likely) for translating crossword-puzzle hints
and settling dinner-table disputes (with Volume 21
spread open on your knees as you read aloud
about still-life painting or the stratosphere).
Yes, the old bindings were scratched in places, and
the latest headlines were missing -- the demise
of the Soviet Union, the outbreak of AIDS.
But the Russian character hasn't really changed,
and the fear the virus provoked was hardly
a new kind of fear. Editions decades apart --
1911, 1944, 1963 -- all describe the same species,
behaving the same way it always has, even while
knowing so much more. Even the mistaken assumptions,
the discredited notions and disproven theories,
are richer than measured facts for measuring
our desire to comprehend all, to explain
and neatly organize the whole
of the imaginable universe: quarks and galaxies,
quartets, variations, tyrants, crustaceans,
aqueducts, grains -- so much to learn, to wonder about.
In an old grocery cart I wheeled the volumes to
the freight elevator, which made the climb
to my floor no slower than usual, even carrying
the burden of all we knew in 1963.

July, 1999

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