‘Ptolemaeus the king of Egypt was so eager to collect a library, that he ordered the books of everyone who sailed there to be brought to him. The books were then copied into new manuscripts. He gave the new copy to the owners… but he put the original copy in the library with the inscription ‘of those from the ships.’
So you can come along and you can scan it:
come along the docks, as are your curious customs,
and you can move among my spread
among my freight my cargo.
And you should catch a draft to drift
to drift from crate my love to crate
my love through freight my lovely argosy.
So you can leaf your dusty tips through wheat and chaff
and riffle out each inky index
through all the silken slough
of all my gaudy textiles.
Flick through it, resort it, recall it
to recount and to your count enlist
my disembarked, my unencrypted holdings.
And so, ascribe each part, just so,
inscribe each piece, just so,
describe each Hippocrene flask, just so,
each cask, just so: of all my all content.
To each a place in place to place
in your exact accountant call
of row by rolling row anatomies.
Now as you go, steady
my dizzying inventories, steady
my whole to holed in hold and steady as you go.
Until amongst the richer sort, my finer stuff,
my love, my weft, my warp, my woof, my loom,
you come across, you chance upon
my books, my textured library.
Like Antony, enlisting scrolls for Egypt,
I’ve weighed up with ranks of primed romance,
rows of charged letters, waxed flattery.
Please read them quick; respond at length but
on the instant, as each squeezed line tips
tight up on the grazed edge, squeaks ‘come!’
and soft speaking means the softly same.
Pinched, each plundered volume plumbs
your depths of cheek of face of front.
The bitter gall of it, from row to row
shelf to shelf and decimal point to point.
You and your low-toned underlings, sotto voce,
unstack, stack up, pack up and off
with those, all those from my ships.
Your tough customs, your officious vandals,
all horn-rimmed reading glasses
and hob-nailed boots spectacular
along my aisles, through my stacks,
and scrawling down my gangplanks.
So silence please. And no talk back to back
to no recourse to no redress to silence please.
You rogue librarian, filling packing cases;
you rough justice, packing shipping crates;
you vile bibliophile, stealing a borrow;
you unrepentant lovely lender.
Fingered, found red-handed
shameless-faced, each fly defaced:
of those — you wrote — from the ships.
You with their hollow whispers
of silenced, pleased apology
towing away my textures
of those from the ships
You book thieves pirates book robbers;
you book thieves collectors borrowers lovers
of those from the ships
Of course, I knew your Alexandrian law.
I knew you’d come, and knew you’d take them.
Of course, I brought along my best materials —
first editions, originals, manuscripts —
and must have hoped you’d steal them.
This is the hope, of course off course,
of all those from such a stricken ship
of all those from the ships.
From Raking Light. Reproduced with kind permission of Carcanet.