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Recorded as part of the Poem-a-Day series, October 16, 2015
About this Poem 

“It’s now almost unimaginable to me that for the first half of my life, I had no access to the Internet. What I did have is my parents’ hardbound, single-volume encyclopedia: a book that seemed to contain a scrap of information on almost every subject. For me ‘Ode to an Encyclopedia’ is about the openness of the open field; when we’re children, we can still believe that we’ll have time to go everywhere, see everything, and do it all.”
James Arthur

Ode to an Encyclopedia

O hefty hardcover on the built-in shelf in my parents’ living
      room,
O authority stamped on linen paper, molted from your dust
      jacket ,
Questing Beast of blue and gold, you were my companion

on beige afternoons that came slanting through the curtains
behind the rough upholstered chair. You knew how to trim a
      sail
and how the hornet builds a hive. You had a topographical map

of the mountain ranges on the far side of the moon
and could name the man who shot down the man
who murdered Jesse James. At forty, I tell myself

that boyhood was all enchantment: hanging around the railway,
getting plastered on cartoons; I see my best friend’s father
marinating in a lawn chair, smiling benignly at his son and me

from above a gin and tonic, or sitting astride his roof
with carpentry nails and hammer, going at some problem
that kept resisting all his mending. O my tome, my paper
      brother,

my narrative without an ending, you had a diagram of a cow
broken down into the major cuts of beef, and an image
of the Trevi Fountain. The boarding house,

the church on the corner: all that stuff is gone.
In winter in Toronto, people say, a man goes outside
and shovels snow mostly so that his neighbors know

just how much snow he is displacing. I’m writing this
in Baltimore. For such a long time, the boy wants
to grow up and be at large, but posture becomes bearing;

bearing becomes shape. A man can make a choice
between two countries, believing all the while
that he will never have to choose.

Copyright © 2015 by James Arthur. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 16, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2015 by James Arthur. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 16, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.

James Arthur

James Arthur

James Arthur is the author of Charms Against Lightning (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). He teaches at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

by this poet

poem
              it’s true sometimes I cannot
stop myself from spilling
              the recycling
 
unpetalling apple blossoms raiding
a picnic
making off with napkins I’m nothing
              until I happen
flipping an umbrella
2
poem

I used to be as unsentimental as anyone could be.
Now I’m almost absurd, a clown, carrying you on my shoulders
around and around Palmer Square, through the cold night wind,
as stores lock up, and begin closing down. Goodnight,

fair trade coffee. Goodnight, Prada shoes. Goodnight soon,