They’ve left me standing at the back of the tiny bookshop, alone, in the very space where I will stand beside a small table with a sweating water bottle. Books floor to ceiling behind me, books—floor to ceiling—before me. Desperate Literature is a closet of a bookstore. Because the owners, Terry and Charlotte who live in a one room apartment in the back, have great taste, the shop is a dream closet of great titles. I will read standing next to Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy. Across from brick and wood shelves housing the books in French, and a compelling ink line portrait of Virginia Woolf which one can buy or comes with a purchase of The Waves. I’ve never felt the truth of Woolf’s book more than now. Time recurs—I feel I’ve been here before, though I’ve never been in Madrid in my life. Everything is mixture and movement, rising and falling, faces and book titles. My wife and three young children take up the entire children’s section in a hallway at the back, blocking the door to the apartment. Terry buzzes around straitening books, mocking his Spanish, selling tickets and handing out the small booklet of my poems he made for the event. I am trying to distract myself with book titles as people enter, pay 3 euro, get a book, and a glass of wine.
I pick up a beautiful little copy of William Hazlett’s On the Pleasure of Hating. A locally printed copy of a dozen or so Emily Dickinson poems translated into Spanish. I read a few poems by James Womack from his book Misprint. James will introduce me. I’ve never met him. He is quiet, deferential, articulate. He says kind things about my poems. Spencer Reece comes. He fills the room with his tall and lean body, his warmth. He hugs everyone. He has invited my family and me to Madrid, has organized the reading. Mark Strand’s girlfriend, Marie Clair, is there with a friend. Ex-pat’s from southern California. Five or six Spaniards, students, hoping to improve their English come. Roberto Bolano wanted to write books for those of us desperate for books, for the comfort of words and images and rhythms. In Madrid it might be the heat, in the Pacific Northwest, my home, it might be the rain, but everyone in this room is desperate for books, for words, for a small space where these things are primary.
A student, recently arrived in Madrid asks if she can buy one book and come back weekly to read another. Terry says, “that’s why we’re here.” They have a signed Hemmingway. He started the dedication twice. A drunken Hemmingway inscription? They sell “boozy books.” Charles Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, Kerouac. A title comes with a shot of whiskey. Quotes are everywhere, hand painted. The heat ebbs a little as evening comes. It is August in Madrid. Liz takes pictures.
We crowd to the back half of the shop. Spencer sits on the floor. My children sit in front of him. Everyone crowds around. I stand against
a bookshelf. I can see nothing but books and faces. I hold my poems. I want so badly to be worthy of this moment. Of these people’s attention. But that is the wrong impulse. They are here. I will read. That exchange is enough, as it has been for years in literature. Spencer has gathered smart, generous people together (Terry, Charlotte, Liz, James) who love literature, are desperate for it. Liam Rector used to tell each incoming class at the Bennington Writing Seminars, “find those with whom you have rapport and proceed.” Nothing in my life could have prepared me for the experience of traveling fourteen hours across the world to read in a beautiful-crowded-hot bookshop to a room of a dozen deeply engaged people. But it is great fun, and I am full of gratitude. The other good news: someone bought a 300 euro book that night.