by James Penha

                    “Where would we be without books?”
                    –KCRW’s Bookworm theme song

Needing to read “One Art,” I grabbed from my bookshelf
this Jakarta morning the Bishop Poems but they wouldn’t give.
I tugged; they resisted; I rocked them, and only slowly
did they swing forward a tad, in concert with Berryman,
suprisingly, and with Bukowski and, with less insistent rhythms,
Aiken. Finally, the clutch of poets broke from their hinges
and the mulch of thousands of white worm-like larvae set
loose blindly seeking shelter. Manic now, I ripped forward
all the poets and they came apart in pieces, like little cardboard
honeycombs. The Homers had always rested horizontally for reasons
I didn’t recall, and when I touched the cover of the topmost,
Lattimore’s Iliad, my fingers went through Troy as easily as Hector slew
Patroclus. Homer, all of them, disintegrated pyreless, into ashes.
Four shelves of books I had carried over continents, over
decades, digested. The shelves as well: these creatures
must be termites, I reasoned, and as I Raided their cradles, can after
can after can beyond the limits of rational killing,
shards of imagery and metaphor ricocheted in the fog of this war.

And later in the day, the lung of my ancient cocker spaniel,
wheezing for weeks, riddled with boils and tumor, quietly
collapsed, his epic life ending in ellipses.

I am left to pet your old photographs and recite Bishop by kindlelight.

SOURCE: Originally appeared in THEMA 27.2 (2015): 73-74.

PHOTO: The author’s beloved cocker spaniel, Tony.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This poem’s narrative is true. Oh, how I wish it were not. I collected and shipped these books, vital, I thought, for my teaching, my writing, and my soul, from Queens, NY to Detroit to Hong Kong to Dutchess County to Staten Island to four different houses in Indonesia including the one where I lost them all and wrote this poem. The dog, whom I loved too, at least lived his whole life in Indonesia.


A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and in poetry. Snakes and Angels, a collection of his adaptations of classic Indonesian folk tales, won the 2009 Cervena Barva Press fiction chapbook contest; No Bones to Carry, a volume of his poetry, earned the 2007 New Sins Press Editors’ Choice Award. He edits TheNewVerse.News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Visit him on Twitter @JamesPenha.

AUTHOR PHOTO: The poet . . . in happier times . . . with a book.