Saturday, August 25, 2007

There Once Was a Brentano's

"pensees, anglice pansies; a handful of thoughts"
There once was a Brentano's Bookstore right across West 49th Street from my office in Rockefeller Center on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue. Brentano's was old European-style bookstore that had everything from leather-bound signed first editions in elaborate bookcases or some ancient artifacts in another elaborate glass case and fine prints hanging on the walls on the lower floor and up the long stairway to the second floor where the throwout and bargain bins were. I went in there nearly every day and looked at several prints I desired, one a Man Ray lithograph from the 1930s, but they were pricey, hundreds of dollars, and I was working as, and I'm, like Henry Miller, not ashamed of it, a proofreader for a large accounting firm in their Printing and Design Department--and ah what a glorious name for a department run by a once-great Danish-modern designer who at that time was simply a hustling has been--once with studios in Paris and New York--now working out of his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he was building a Jaguar in his basement in his spare time, though he did command a director's title on my job and he was technically my boss though my boss was really the supervisor, a whacky little Christian Indian woman who had a drinking problem and decided she, too, could work from her home just like the bigshot designer, not showing up at the office once for a period of six months--"I can work just as well from my bed at home as I can in the office--afterall, most of my work is done on the phone."

So I had no money, just a lot of time on my hands, so I'd leave my proofreading desk and run over to Brentano's every time I could, which surprisingly was several times a day--especially after I was promoted and became a full-time copyeditor.

One day the inevitable happened. I went galloping over to Brentano's and, damn, the first thing I ran into was a huge sign declaring Brentano's was shutting down after many glorious years on Fifth Avenue in NYC and that very day was the beginning of their big sell off--selling everything in the store at huge discounts. Damn. There were bins full of on-sale treasures everywhere.

I immediately started going through some bins of books. Right off the bat a little paperback volume caught my eye. At the time I was heavily into D.H. Lawrence--Lorenz--as I had lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and had gone up to D.H.'s ranch up above Taos just past Wheeler Peak the highest mountain in New Mexico and had loved it up there--it was open to the public at the time, run by the U of New Mexico, and the several times my wife and I went up there there was nobody there. The house was open. There was furniture in it. Even an outdoor kitchen with adobe fireplaces and a big water barrel and a stack of logs--no running water in the house but right off the front porch ran a little ditch running full of crystal-clear spring water--I still remember cupping my hands and dipping them in that cold, cold water and taking a huge drink looking up at the Rocky Mountains--the Sangre de Cristos--bleeding blue and white topped across the far horizon--the view off the plateau on which D.H.'s ranch sat. My wife and I dared to spend the night up there that first time we went there and we went back several times thereafter and stayed the night there about 5 times in all--and what wonderful nights--unbelieveable--and right back up the hill behind the ranchhouse in a white mausoleum looking down on the house was D.H.'s ashes and his wife Frieda's big Brunhilde grave just outside D.H.'s mausoleum. One night my wife and I went up to the mausoleum and we lit candles and put them around on the floor and we sat there looking at D.H.'s ashes casket and read from Women in Love.

The paperback that caught my eye was a raggedy edition, Pansies, Poems by D.H. Lawrence. I picked it up. There was no publisher listed, no copyright, just the covers, the title page, the table of contents, an introduction by Lawrence, and then the poems. I got it in my head that I was holding a very rare edition of a D.H. Lawrence work. A privately printed edition maybe.

I looked at the price. Ten cents. I swear. Ten cents. I bought it.

I got it back to the office and decided it was no treasure really; Brentano's wasn't putting any rare D.H. Lawrence book in a going-out-of-business sale bin for 10 cents. Mistakes are made by stores but I couldn't see them making that kind of mistake. Besides their rare books were kept in those elaborate and locked bookcases. So, I glanced at the introduction and then put the book in one of my desk drawers and there it stayed until I got fired one bright August morning, the day before my birthday--and the damn company had sent me a birthday card that same morning telling me how glad they were I worked for them and how they hoped I had many more birthdays with the company. An hour later I was out on my ass--the cardboard boxes of my belongings sat out on the curb for me by one of the mailroom dudes--the D.H. Lawrence book down in the bottom of one of those boxes.

When I got back to my apartment I put the boxes in the closet and that was that.

A few years later I had to move and as a result of not finding a new apartment quick enough, I moved in with my girlfriend and took all my belongings out to her mansion out near Greenwich, Connecticut--ah ironies, aren't they grand! I don't know how I could endure life without all these gorgeous ironies.

So the D.H. Lawrence book by then was somewhere lost among the numerous boxes of my life's worth that were stored willy-nilly in her garage.

Of course, the ironies of romance are some of the most engaging ironies of life and sure enough this arrangement soon ran its course and next thing I know I'm sleeping on the living room couch of a couple of friends of mine who have a loft in SoHo and desperately searching for a place I can call my own.

A year or so later, my girlfriend informed me that her garage had flooded and all of my "stuff" was currently residing at the local garbage dump--it had all been ruined by the flooding and she'd had it hauled to the dump by her Italian handyman and gardener.

OK. That was that. The little D.H. Lawrence book was becoming compost now, sweltering under piles of garbage on a big New York City-area dump, dissolving, just like D.H. dissolved under the throes of tuberculosis in Italy in the summer. That was that. Wev, right?

A year or so later, my girlfriend and I made up again (oh the Ferris Wheel of ironies that made our world go around) and I was once again staying in her mansion. One night, I went into her library, a walnut-panelled room with four huge, high, shelves of books; I knew them all by heart--or thought I did. I wanted to read some Sartre and I went to the shelf she kept the Sartre on and DAMN! Did my eyes deceive me? I looked. There it sat. Right by Being and Nothingness--a great sign to me--I'm very existentialist in case you didn't know. Yes, folks, there IT sat: Pansies, Poems by D.H. Lawrence. I grabbed it quick and put it with my bag--I was only there for a weekend.

The rescued book joined me on my further ventures moving around NYC to various apartments finally settling in the one I'm still in NOW. Over the years the book got lost again. This time in amongst the wild collections of my dreams that are draped, stacked, hanging, shelved, on the floor, on the ceiling and in the closets of my apartment--I collect everything under the sun, you see, from Rockwell Kent lithographs to an extensive collection of vintage railroad annual passes to a huge collection of Vernon Kilns china and Carl Van Vechten photographs--my proudest being a shot of Billie Holiday with her dog, "Mister"--I mean, there is no space in my apartment that is not crammed with God KNOWS What--and what God, I'm asking--but anyway, I lost the little volume of D.H.'s poetry once again.

Just last night--I'm reading a biography of Paul Bowles up in my loftbed--I went looking for my copy of Bowles's Sheltering Sky (one of the best books, I think, ever written). I was digging in this crusty old cardboard box of books--oh they were dirty, dusty, disgusting--dead spiders, roach eggs, who knows, but I didn't find my Sheltering Sky--nope, instead, what I did find was a book of Rupert Brooke poems I'd had when I was in college--and then, son of a bitch, yep, there it was: Pansies, Poems by D.H. Lawrence. Golly dog, Scotty (being Star Trekian), there it was, back in my arms again. What a life this little book had had in both reality and imagination but now here it was, back in my arms again, like I said.

So here I sit with it now. There still is no publisher's imprimatur anywhere to be found--just the covers, the flyleaves, the T of C, the Introduction, and the poems--the pansies.

And quickly I came across this dazzling little poem--maybe it's not politically correct, folks, but, to hell with that, it's a quaint poem--it made me read it several times.

After dark
Can you, after dark, become a darkie?
Could one, at night, run up against the standing flesh of you
with a shock, as against the blackness of a negro,
and catch flesh like the night in one's arms.

And how about this little suggestive gem:

Take away all this crystal and silver
and give me soft-skinned wood
that lives erect through long nights, physically
to put to my lips.

Or this wonderful one:


You, you don't know me.
When have your knees ever nipped me
like fire-tongs a live coal
for a minute?

I've Deduced
These were compiled right before he died. One of the poems is entitled England 1929.

I am now reading at some more of these "pansies" and I find them visibly tantalizing and then I start reading them and by dogies they're compelling creatures. Marvelous. Wonderful. I'm ecstatic. It's like spending a night up on D.H.'s ranch lo those many years ago now--and with a woman who like D.H. and Frieda is now dead and gone and buried in New Mexico.

for The D.H.aily Growler

1 comment:

Language said...

Great post, and how I remember that Brentano's (and that sale)!

I wonder if yours is the "1929: Unknown" edition mentioned here?