Sunday, June 19, 2016

now entering vagabondia

I took Songs of Dogs, an Anthology Selected and Arranged by Robert Frothingham, a small book from 1920 that I bought several years ago at my favorite bookstore, Bookman’s Alley, in Evanston, Illinois, off the shelf and climbed into bed. As usual, Josie crawled under the covers, settled by my side.
MY DOG AND I

When living seems but little worth
    And all things go awry,
I close the door, we journey forth —
    My dog and I!

For books and pen we leave behind,
    But little careth he;
His one great joy in life is just
    To be with me.

He notes by just one upward glance
    My mental attitude,
As on we go past laughing stream
    And singing wood.

The soft winds have a magic touch
    That brings to care release,
The trees are vocal with delight,
    The rivers sing of peace.

How good it is to be alive!
    Nature, the healer strong,
Has set each pulse with life athrill
    And joy and song.

Discouragement! ’T was but a name,
    And all things that annoy,
Out in the lovely world of June
    Life seemeth only joy!

And ere we reach the busy town,
    Like birds my troubles fly,
We are two comrades glad of heart —
    My dog and I!
Alice J. Cleator
Every morning Josie and I walk to the top of the riverbank where we find three graves. We come first to Queenie’s—I see her jumping and prancing, happy to see me, eagerly saying hello, and I say “Good morning, Missie.” Next is Goldie: he sits like Buddha Cat, still, expressionless, just here, I am, he says, and I say “Good morning, Goldie, here, I am, too.” Then Buster, near the very edge of the bank, just under the low-slung branches of evergreen. Like the Sphinx he looks out over the river, taking it all in, watching; he hears me now, knows I am there, turns his head slightly to give me a look, thumps his tail, then back to watching. “Good morning, Buster,” I say. “I love you, buddy.” Then Josie and I turn back home, follow the trail to the cabin. Sometimes Elliott is on the trail, off to the side, he waits to ambush Josie. They race home. As Elliott passes, he gives Josie a bump.

The fields are strewn with the colors of early summer: buttercup, daisy, field pussytoes, goat’s beard, orange hawkweed, trefoil, stitchwort. But—Bookman’s Alley: dimly lit, cavernous, a labyrinth of rooms of books old, used, sometimes rare; threadbare rugs; chairs and stools covered with Native American blankets; a saddle; sheet music, tables, low-watt lamps, artwork; the quiet of a library along with the whispering cacophony of stuff and books; books on shelves, stacked on stools, stacked in brown paper bags; just stacked and stacked; and Billie Holiday perhaps it was, sometimes, softly in the background, “Gloomy Sunday,” “God Bless the Child”; nobody telling you go here, go there, read this, buy that, what’s new, what’s the latest; and no 10% off, just offerings.

I spent many lunch hours in Bookman’s Alley, when working at Northwestern. It was just a block or so from campus and its subtlety lured me in. The proprietor sat near the door behind a desk stacked with books. Perhaps as I entered he looked up, greeted me with a nod, and of course I could ask him questions, engage in conversation, pass the time, but I wanted to be on my own so into the depths I would go, perhaps emerging my half hour or 45 minutes later with another Sigurd Olson, or Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders (1894), People of the Deer by Farley Mowat with drawings by Samuel Bryant (1952), and my favorite, such a find!, Lucky The Famous Foundling, with photographs by Nina Leen, text by Ray Mackland (1951). Lucky was “ … a mongrel dog who, by purest chance, was saved from certain death on the Texas plains. ...”

Page 43, Nina Leen and Lucky, a self-portrait.

From Songs of Dogs:
THE ROAD TO VAGABONDIA

He was sitting on a doortstep as I went strolling by;
A lonely little beggar with a wistful, homesick eye —
And he was n’t what you’d borrow
And he was n’t what you’d steal —
But I guessed his heart was breaking,
So I whistled him to heel.

They had stoned him through the city streets and
          naught the city cared,
But I was heading outward and the roads are
          sweeter shared,
So I took him for a comrade and I whistled him
          away —
On the road to Vagabondia that lies across the day.

Yellow dog he was; but, bless you — he was just
          the chap for me!
For I’d rather have an inch of dog than miles of
          pedigree.
So we stole away together on the road that has no
          end
With a new-coined day to fling away and all the
          stars to spend!

Oh, to walk the road at morning, when the wind is
          blowing clean,
And the yellow daisies fling their gold across a
          world of green —
For the wind it heals the heartaches and the sun it
          dries the scars,
On the road to Vagabondia that lies beneath the
          stars.

’T was the wonder of the going cast a spell about
          our feet —
We walked because the world was young, because
          the way was sweet;
And we slept in wild-rose meadows by the little
          wayside farms,
Till the Dawn came up the highroad with the dead
          moon in her arms.

Oh, the Dawn it went before us through a shining
          lane of skies,
And the Dream was at our heartstrings and the
          light was in our eyes,
And we made no boast of glory and we made no
          boast of birth,
On the road to Vagabondia that lies across the
          earth.
Dana Burnet
An online search turned up Poems by Dana Burnet, a 1915 book that you can download from Google Books, which I did, thinking it was kind of a find, but boy, wouldn’t it have been more of a find if found by chance on a dusty shelf at Bookman’s Alley? I searched specifically for “Dana Burnet” and for “The Road to Vagabondia” and found the poem, as originally written, in dialect, no “h”s, as in ’E was sittin’ on a doorstep … not only in the book of Burnet’s poems but also in a 1915 edition of the Los Angeles Evening Herald, and I am glad of it. Does it matter that the book is digital, stored somewhere now on my computer, untouchable, never to sit on a shelf, to gather dust? Does it matter that it is not a century-old solid thing once owned and read by another, perhaps many others? That there is no inscription inside the front cover? Merry Christmas 1933, from Father. Does it matter that the book is not an object with a story of its own?

It was a chilly, rainy morning. I was sitting on the floor in the loft with my laptop on my lap, putting off the day’s work, stealing a little time in pursuit of dogged happenstance. Sitting on the floor in the loft because Elliott and Josie were in pursuit of something they had seen earlier scurrying about outside and both wanted to be out on the upper deck, sticking their heads through the slats of the railing, peering below, surveying the yard and the trees, whining a bit—Josie whining, Elliott not—and I have no idea what it was all about. But I sat by the door to the upper deck so I could let them in when they were ready, so Elliott would not put more holes in the screen that I imagine those pesky mosquitoes squeeze through, and while sitting there I googled “Alice J. Cleator” (a prolific writer of hymns) and I googled “Nina Leen” (fascinating! a Life Magazine photographer—there’s a short bio and many images here or just go straight to the squirrel named Tommy dressed in frocks) and I googled “Dana Burnet,” found his book of poetry, downloaded it, brought it home, as it were, and by the time Josie and Elliott came in from the deck the morning felt so sweetly lost, given over to the drip of rain, strains of poetry, the lure of images, a critter outside—like a trip to Vagabondia!, and we stayed there on that road for pretty much the whole of the day, and that night I crawled into bed with Farley Mowat, the slightly browned pages of People of the Deer (first blowing away the dust), and so then I traveled even further, and Josie, as always, was at my side, and Elliott was off somewhere, and there we were, just a story or two, tucked under a dim light.