The Catalog Department
It was a wide room with white linoleum floors
where student workers wheeled the new books past
and seemed to mock us
from beneath their headphone straps.
The room’s north wall was glass, and through it
we saw the university fountain, four feet high,
rush upward and collapse like the hours.
Depending on the day, we watched
with a kind of terror as it fretted the air,
the fountain visible even when we stood
by the coffee urn and talked,
whatever the subjects:
coupons and fat content, the bills.
Two women in particular
often talked together. Both thin
as needles, they tilted their heads—strict
back unbent (some would say librarian backs)—
nearer each other to hear how she couldn’t
stand it anymore, the child had been
his idea and had turned into a brat.
Above us were the books with their characters
and ambitions, nine floors of books and stories
louder than ours—though we still had our own
or outbursts. For example two (I don’t
remember their names) went off
to Florida together, not to return.
Following this, one year later
a clerk threw herself on the office floor
just as in a book. And later yet,
We were passionate enough
to become text. Everyone was,
underneath the orderliness
that comes with filing and cross-referencing,
to deserve a spot somewhere in a book,
while on the pages wheeled past our desks,
a victorious general straightens his jacket,
or a lesser known character delivers a letter,
and in his pressing the inked envelope forward,
we could see, if we stopped to turn the page,
his tapered, polite hand
and his crisp shirt, his life
in the gesture of delivery,
while maintenance overhead, above the stacks of books,
repaired the roof.
Christine Garren has published poems most recently in the Chicago Review, Fence, and Poetry.
“The Catalog Department” appears in our Autumn 2005 issue.