In the used bookstore

I am eavesdropping as I browse the poetry collection. If anyone notices, I’m sure they’ll assume it’s book titles I’m scribbling into my warped pocked notebook, which is on brief, temporary work-release from the depths of my winter coat. I didn’t have heart trouble until I married you. Then I had heart trouble. I peak around the books: seated at a round table in the café, an elderly woman is lecturing her husband as a middle-aged man looks on, appearing to mediate.

I recall suddenly my last dream before waking, in which a yellow-billed cuckoo was being eyed by a great-horned owl. First I was on the ground looking up at the cuckoo, thinking raincrow, and then I was right with her on the branch looking farther up into the canopy at the owl, and feeling the cuckoo’s terror as the owl spread its wings menacingly.

Some new, small-press titles on consignment grab my eye. Backwoods Press, or something like that. I recognize the author from an anthology — he’s good. I read several poems, carry the book over to a table, sit down with it, read a couple more. The poor printing and mediocre design finally get the better of me. I carry the book back over and continue browsing. It occurs to me that the dream must’ve come from listening to several versions of the old Anglo-Irish folk song “The Cuckoo” the day before.

Look how shakey he is! His fingernails need cut and I can’t cut him. Last time I tried to cut his fingernails, he got cut. I tried to take him over here to get them cut, but he won’t go! He’s too damn stubborn. I pick books off the shelf that I know I’ve looked at before, on past visits, read one or two lines and put them back. I start feeling self-conscious about it, because now I’m taking notes.

Would I browse this way in a library, I wonder? No, I don’t think I would. In a library I tend to give books more of a chance. But in that case I’m only looking for temporary guests; here in the bookstore I’m looking for long-term companions. And it’s just common sense to be extra careful about that: so many minor irritations, if improperly indulged, can grow into pet peeves that require regular walks and the changing of litter boxes. One lapse of judgment and there you are four short decades later with heart trouble or shaky hands.

On the bookstore’s stereo, a rockin’ calypso version of “No More Monkeys Jumping On the Bed.” I find a book I like: Summer Lake: New and Selected Poems by David Huddle. It’s a good-looking paperback from Louisiana State University Press, and I know I’ve looked at it before without reading more than one or two lines. This time, I read six poems in their entirety and am hooked by the straight-forward narrative style and details of rural working-class life. The Ben Shahn painting on the cover, Blind Accordion Player, may or may not have been a factor. I tuck it under my arm and head for the counter. The notebook goes back into its burrow in my coat for six more weeks.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

13 Comments


  1. “One lapse of judgement and there you are four short decades later with heart trouble or shakey hands.”
    Heheheheh…and of course the whole bit was nicely overheard.

    So, where can I find those monkeys jumping on the bed? My intrepid bloodhound Google couldn’t catch the scent.

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  2. Thanks. I can’t find it either. The title may have actually been “Five Little Monkeys,” but either way I couldn’t find it in the Putumayo catalogue, which accounts for most of what they play in there. I’ll have to ask next time I go in. I was really only listening with one ear.

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  3. Loved that Cuckoo song. Can you recommend some musicians/albums along those lines? The local NPR station here used to play bluegrass a lot but they recently dumped it completely. As you know, I love this stuff when I hear it (like when Andy Ricker plays it) but I really don’t know shit about it.

    On another topic, I find it curious that you linked out to Amazon in this post. Thought you were like me and didn’t really like Amazon. Two good reasons for not liking them: 1) they’re helping to kill used bookstores like the one you were visiting in this post; 2) they’re a ‘red’ company, i.e. they donate heavily to the Republicans.

    Yeah, I know, small used book sellers can sell through Amazon too and that can help them survive but I don’t think that counter balances the overall effect of online book-buying and Amazon is the king of online book-buying especially since, unlike other big online book sellers, Amazon doesn’t have any brick and mortar stores with real live people.

    Anyway, just curious why you linked to them because I actually faced this very situation earlier today and I purposely decided to link to a review on Powell’s instead of Amazon.

    Cheers,
    Chris O’Brien

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  4. Chris – I agree, Amazon is a double-edged sword. But Powell’s is also a big, centralized business, and one that competes directly with other used bookstores – how is that an improvement? My sense from what Fred and Elaine have told me is that Amazon has actually helped keep them alive (though there’s also bookfinder.com and other services they use). Sometimes I don’t link to Amazon precisely because I don’t feel like sending any more business their way, for precisely the reasons you suggest. But other times, I do because it’s usually the most helpful link in terms of reviews and information. And I link for informational purposes only, not to endorse. If readers want to buy through their local bookstore, they can.

    We order quite a few books from Amazon here, because our only local new bookstores are two Barnes & Nobles, which in some ways leaves even less to be desired. (Svoboda’s, as you’ll recall, went out of business due to the double whammy of Amazon and B&N coming to the State College area. We were very loyal as long as they lasted.)

    As for your first question, Clarence “Tom” Ashley has only a few songs on record, I think. But two guys that sound a lot like him – blues-inflected, old-time Appalachian banjo and guitar – are Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb. Check the Smithsonian Folkways catalogue to order their CDs. (I can listen for free through Penn State.) There’s some Roscoe Holcomb on YouTube; the Dock Boggs videos got taken down a few months ago.

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  5. One alternative to Amazon linking I forgot to mention, though, is the publisher’s catalog page. Sometimes those pages quote from reviews and contain a lot of information. But I suspect such links will expire a lot sooner than an Amazon link.

    Someone should start a wiki for books.

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  6. Isn’t that quite the best version of this much recorded song? Thanks for this clip.

    Interestingly, in spite of its having been collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset first of all, virtually every version traceable on record is American. And most of the British versions I know were taken from the American root, the only exception I’m aware of being by the very English Shirley Collins. Final small irony: Sharp then collected it again in the Appalachians in, I believe, 1917.

    A curious irrelevancy. In the Comments column beneath the clip I came across the following: ‘Insprècka skoorp deetlàgtin öns mûsickäly Anorexia Nervosa! Insiträlvèsi det öns prelùgten.’ A prize should be offered for the best interpretation.

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  7. I love the cuckoo song! I first heard it in the Ramblin’ Jack Elliot documentary. Then I heard two versions by Taj Mahal. Both artists shout out “holla-cuc-KOO” when there clearly isn’t time for it, and it comes as an exciting eruption. Something happens in electrification, the vocal and the banjo parts clump into heavier bodies, tumble against each other, bang elbows. Beats talk over each other, pushing out until you watch from a tree, and listen with the ear of a season.

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  8. Dick – Thanks for that brief musicological disquisition. Once again, I’m blown away by the knowledge of Via Negativa readers. Guess I shouldn’t have said “Anglo-Irish,” then?

    The first verse, about “watching Willie,” is mysterious. I’m also wondering whether “wobbles” was originally “warbles”?

    I wonder about the marketing strategy that goes into leaving spam comments in an obscure language on obscure YouTube clips. It adds to the mystery of the song, for sure! The comment I found most helpful was the one about cuckoo nest-parasitism, which is much more prevalent with the European species. I was aware of that, but didn’t realize that’s where the word “cuckold” comes from.

    Bill – I’ll have to see if I can find these on Rhapsody. I think I might’ve heard the Taj Mahal version at some point. Thanks for the vivid description!

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  9. In both the RJE and TM versions its “warbles”.

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  10. I realized when I was out on a walk this morning that I do know the Taj Mahal song; it’s different enough really to be a wholly seperate song, I think. That was on one of his first two albums, wasn’t it? I used to own them both.

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  11. Hey Dave, Dick, thanks for the line of distraction: I took it. Dave, I don’t know what Taj Mahal album, but it does have two versions on it. It’s a mysterious song. As to the variety of the versions of lyrics, I like the explanation that at one time banjos were a fad and it became one of the standard songs to mess with; to sing — whatever –to.

    I came across a great page with photos on Sharp in Appalachia:
    http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/sharp.htm

    Greil Marcus on “The Cuckoo”: here.

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  12. Oh, Marcus fulminates pages further than I thought…to the end of the chapter. I sparked at the mention of “public secrets”, putting me in mind of the incredible, persecuted anarchist Rexroth. In combination with the photos from the Sharp page, it’s a bleak imagery of environmental devastation and violence.

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  13. Thanks for digging these up, Bill. I’m glad to know of them (I’ve heard of the Marcus book), though I found each would-be authority uniquely full of shit.

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