Live Virtual Group Session: 6pm EDT July 27th 2020

Twenty-three people gathered together via Zoom to close-read Charles Simic’s 1938 poem “In the Library” and, after discussing the text, write to a prompt.

96% of participants revealed, via the NM survey, that they have participated in four or more of these NM live, virtual sessions, which, again tonight, brought together people from three continents. We love coming back together each Monday night, welcoming back our core group of veteran participants and welcoming new faces as well. Our community has grown with time, our bonds strengthened, and our eagerness to expand our narrative medicine family always growing.

After quickly reviewing the use of technology and the guidelines emanating from Narrative Medicine’s values of confidentiality and narrative humility: approaching texts with openness, welcoming diverse perspectives, and responding to each other with respect and specific references to what is “seen” and heard in each other’s writing.

As we did last week we co-constructed possible meanings in the text by offering each observation, intertextual association, or visceral reaction as “a piece of the puzzle.” The first piece of the puzzle attended to the title “In the Library” which locates the reader, as well as the speaker of the poem, in a library. (Many of us chatted our remembrances of libraries/librarians in our past or named famous librarians such as Jorge Luis Borges of Argentina’s National Library.) Later there was attention paid to being in the dictionary that was in the library where “[a]ngels and gods huddled [i]n dark unopened books” (books that are “whispering”) and how those words suggested a hallowed space. As we explored the space of the poem, we noted the how many languages come together within the library. For example, “the language of the library is silence”, but the “the language of books are words” that are being whispered to us as we browse through the space.

One person drew attention to the lines alluding to the prevalence of angels, in times past, being “as plentiful [a]s species of flies” making it necessary “to wave both arms [j]ust to keep them away.” Another person heard the speaker wishing for the special power of the librarian to hear what s(he) could hear. There was speculation about the identity of Octavio, to whom Simic had dedicated the poem. We agreed that there was not only a secret in the dictionary but also mystery in the poem to which we were not privy.  As we wondered what the books are whispering, we wondered also “what kind of deep listening is enough to hear what they are saying”. We noted that Mrs. Jones’ “head tipped as it listening” – what kind of gestures and adjustments are necessary for us to really listen to what’s around us?

We moved to the prompt: Write about what Mrs. Jones hears as she passes A Dictionary of Angels and wrote for four minutes.

Four participants read aloud. One person styled Mrs. Jones’s hair into a bun (and someone later added a pencil pushing through the bun!) and imagined her hearing an angel tell a joke. Another wrote as if she were the librarian and offered to be a witness to what the book held. One person expressed her desire for the angels to have stories. One narrative ended with a loose page of the dictionary floating down onto the surprised librarian’s feet—and left the reader to imagine what was on the page. Another writer had Mrs. Jones hear the angels murmuring, in ancient languages, doubts, kindness, peace, and “right wisdom.”

We thank you all for your participation and contributions to our collective puzzle. See you soon!

Participants are warmly encouraged to share what you wrote below (“Leave a Reply”), to keep the conversation going here, bearing in mind that the blog of course is a public space where confidentiality is not assured.

Also, we would love to learn more about your experience of these sessions, so if you’re able, please take the time to fill out a follow-up survey of one to two quick questions!

Please join us for our next session Wednesday, July 29th at 12pm EDT, with more times listed on our Live Virtual Group Sessions page.

In the Library - Charles Simic (1938)

For Octavio
There’s a book called
A Dictionary of Angels.
No one had opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered
The angels were as plentiful                           
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.
She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.