The Other Reading Room

Was it Marshall Karp who introduced me to the euphemistic notion of the other reading room? Maybe not, but he did have a clever way of saying, when we bumped into each other outside Woodstock Meats, that he was enjoying my collection, My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse, as his bathroom book. We’d exchanged books after featuring together at a reading in Saugerties, where we’d been oddly matched, me as a poet, Marshall as comic mystery writer of what he happily called airport books. (Or maybe not so oddly matched. When I dedicated one of my Night of the Living Dead poems to Marshall, who has worked in advertising, television, and movies, he said, “I know them!”) This past year, he and I have shared a physical therapist—him for a new knee, me for a stiff shoulder—who was the one to tell me that Marshall has had a #1 New York Times bestseller. Wow! I thought to myself. Where have I been? I should get out of my cottage more often.

The caveat, I suppose, is that Marshall co-authored this book, Kill Me If You Can, with James Patterson, who owns the Guinness World Record for New York Times bestsellers. Still, I felt tickled for Marshall’s success and raced through the book with that same pleasure I feel in a darkened movie theater watching a good George Clooney caper. Several key scenes take place in Grand Central Station, which reminded me of an evening in the early 1990s when I was a reverse commuter returning from my job in Connecticut. Emerging from the train platforms I was surprised to discover the central concourse brightly lit as never before as if to unveil its ceiling of painted stars. There were spotlights bouncing their intense beams off white screens as large as drive-in movie screens to illuminate the whole chamber. Wow, I thought. They must be making a movie. (It turned out to be Carlito’s Way staring Al Pacino.) As I read Kill Me If You Can, I could see those screens going up for the filming. It’s a very entertaining book.

But back to bathrooms. Later in the day after finishing Marshall’s book, I found myself in Beacon after art hopping from the Neuberger Museum at SUNY Purchase to the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill. In Beacon, aside from the galleries, I tried out the new funky coffee shop, called the Coffee Shop, which had exposed brick walls, a chalkboard coffee bar menu hanging over the counter, and mismatched couches and coffee tables for loungers like me. In short, my kind of place. I eavesdropped on the bearded young barista enthusing with customers over the Raymond Carver short stories in the paperback he’d left open on the counter. I read some more passages of the book that I was racing through that day. Before leaving I found the bathroom around a back corner by the children’s bookshelves.

What did I find handsomely hand-calligraphied on the walls—classy graffiti, you’d call it—but a short poem by Rumi, a stanza from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and a skinny but complete poem by Anne Sexton. What an appealing discovery. Marshall was right: poetry belongs in bathrooms. The sitting time is just about right to consider a poem or three. Your mind is ripe for an edifying distraction. What would you otherwise gain from staring at a blank wall or a fold up Koala Kare diaper board?

Not that I’ve placed a poem in a bathroom myself. But I’m convinced that one of my best read poems hangs on the office wall of the Honda repair shop in Kingston. More than one passing acquaintance has surprised me by complimenting it, people obviously glad for the little distraction it provided during that grim wait to have their car repaired and their wallet drained.


little rattle
under my car
how I wonder
how you are
your rapid tapping
your exhausted cough
your final bleating
before I turn the engine off.

little rattle
under my car
I wish you well
for what you are.
In the morning
I’ll be here again
to drive you
near and far.

But bathrooms are best. What better way to spend those few minutes of peace and release than reading a poem? Here’s hoping that the Coffee Shop starts a trend. And here’s that Anne Sexton poem.

The Fury of Sunsets

cold is in the air,
an aura of ice
and phlegm.
All day I’ve built
a lifetime and now
the sun sinks to
undo it.
The horizon bleeds
and sucks its thumb.
The little red thumb
goes out of sight.
And I wonder about
this lifetime with myself,
this dream I’m living.
I could eat the sky
like an apple
but I’d rather
ask the first star:
why am I here?
why do I live in this house?
who’s responsible?

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