Ode to the Best Poem I Never Read — Sam Woodworth

Some books I may never read. In Stephen Burt’s Close Calls with Nonsense, he says Jorie Graham’s The End of Beauty “flaunted its philosophical ambitions, sporting abstract terms, endless sentences, fragments, elusive references, even the occasional _______ where a noun belonged. […] Though The End of Beauty hasn’t a prayer of matching sales figures for Nevermind, people who listen to lots of rock music might do well to make an analogy between the post-Graham poetry world and post-Nirvana indie rock.” I loved the sound of that—all of those buzz words excited me. I took this challenge; I tried to write that essay in undergrad, but I could not make it happen. I could not get through the book. I really can’t make it through an entire collection of Graham’s. Which I do not think is an error on Graham’s or Burt’s part, but on my own part. The time is not right. It’s not jiving for me. When I was 21 I tried to read Swann’s Way. Nope. Not the right time. When I was 23? It was the best thing I ever encountered. But this was all me.

Recently, among shelves and shelves of literary journals in Virginia Tech’s English department, I came across an old copy of Conduit Magazine. An issue from 2004 called “Dumb Luck.” Why Conduit? I often enjoy what’s happening inside. Good stuff in there.

The journal was hurting—plenty of scuffs and dents like someone folded it in half to prop up a shaky table’s leg. This did not bother me. What bothered me was the missing poem.

I started at page amulet (Conduit does not use page numbers in favor of words arranged alphabetically), but on page ante the poem was ripped out.

The poem-pilferer was precise. The whole page was not missing, just the box that once contained text. Like this:

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I was pissed. The table of contents told me the page once held, “My One Paneled Wall” by Crystal Curry. My one paneled poem was missing.

I asked myself, “Who damages books like this?!”

Answer: I do.

Not yet to this extent, but I do damage books. I dog-ear the bottom corners of pages I love so the next reader, when they come across the marked page, gets my hidden message. “This page meant a lot to the last person who borrowed it!” they will say and we will be closer while remaining strangers. I’m not ashamed of this. If I got a book marked this way, I would fall in love with the stranger who held it before. I really would.

[Note: The next person to borrow Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey from Newman Library will get my messages. I tabbed a lot of pages in that book.]

Flipping through Conduit I noted no other missing poems. What I did find were three notecards—all three are form rejections from magazine submissions. Here they are:

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As I don my Sherlock hat, this is what I infer happened.

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Someone fresh with rejection hit the stacks and found Conduit. Maybe they love it or maybe it was dumb luck that coincidentally drew them toConduit‘s issue “Dumb Luck,” but they felt very down and very depressed. Who else carries their rejections in cold hand like a dejected valentine with limping roses? The person started reading from the beginning and stopped at page ante. And ante is only the fifth page!

They were so moved by the writing, they left their rejections behind and replaced them with the poem. It is in their wallet now. Or taped in a notebook. Or Crystal Curry’s poem “My One Paneled Wall” is tacked on their one paneled wall. Symbiosis.

I hope the stolen poem inspired poems in this person that are published somewhere now. And if not, I am happy the person has a friend to carry with them through more and more rejection.

And I am a little jealous of this person who found a poem at such precisely the perfect moment, they had to snatch it away from future readers. It’s a little like monogamy, I suppose.

It gives me hope. Maybe someday it will be the right time and I will read Jorie Graham’s The End of Beauty or some other collection of poetry and rip each page out as I complete reading it and stuff my pockets.

Even though I haven’t hunted down the text for “My One Paneled Wall,” it is one of my favorite poems. I am sure it is great. Through this poem, I am enamored with its reader. I am closer to a stranger. 

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