A love letter to the public library

Public libraries have been a lifeline for me for many, many years. This poem had been brewing in my head for some time, and I finally made the space and time to sit down and write it. By a lovely sleight of serendipity, it also happens to be #LibrariesWeek. For more information on this, click here.

 

📖 A LOVE LETTER TO THE PUBLIC LIBRARY 📖

 

1

Age seven or eight, I get my first public library card of

hard, green plastic with black letters emblazoned across it and

no matter the other words apart from these two:

Book Token.

 

I wobble up and down the streets between my house

and the mobile library, perched like a mirage

between roaring cars and the curly slide I stand atop for hours,

unsure if I am brave enough to hurl myself down.

 

But I am brave enough to cycle to the library alone;

to stand before whole walls and worlds of books and

scarcely bear to breathe, lest they all evaporate

before my very eyes.

 

Handing over the precious token, I

carry the stash to my bicycle lying in the grass

and, propping it upright, bury my treasure deep into

the zipped, tartan bag attached to the back and pedal home.

 

2

I find myself with a tiny child in my arms, eyes the colour

of June skies blinking up into mine; and I don’t know what to do with her

nor myself; whether I’m coming or going, too tired to think too tired

to talk or make decisions.

 

So I tie her into the Guatemalan papoose and we walk

past the ancient water meadows and over the stone bridge

while her rosebud lips pucker and twitch in a deep, deep sleep

I find myself envying.

 

It’s been a while since I’ve been surrounded by books like this but

the minute I push the doors open and stand there,

a tidal wave of relief floods through me, here in a place surrounded by stories

and by characters who will not judge me.

 

I come back, again and again and as my baby grows and

starts to pull herself across the floor, dragging books from their shelves, I follow her,

replacing them and crying silent tears of exhaustion

into her tight, strawberry blond curls.

 

3

Now there is no going back: a decision long-forming has been made,

embraced as tightly as the supple limbs of my three children who

I take to the library Friday afternoons, a toddler babbling to himself in his pushchair

and two little girls in school uniform and crooked pigtails.

 

Their mouths and fingers chocolate-icing sticky, smeared from the bake sale, and sometimes they

are happy to pound the pavement to the place of books

but other times they grumble and strain against the injustice of

the sleet, the cold, of their mother who will not just let them go home.

 

No. For my motive lies beyond sheer altruism of surrounding my children in a world of wisdom.

Once fingers and noses are wiped and feuds subsided

and they have leaned into their cocoon of books, soft and enticing as a duvet,

I dash from the room, for time is of the essence.

 

Yes. I want to be a writer; I see that as clearly as the black spidery hands of

the clock that ticks through this quiet room, stealing my time.

I pull down the Writers Handbook, heavy and profound as sea sand

and flick through, discovering a new dialect: Agents. Publishers. Unsolicited Manuscripts.

 

4

And on to Kenya, where the dream wraps itself around me and takes flight

as sure and swift as a sunbird, darting across cracked-earth plains and into verdant valleys,

dripping beneath the weight of the rains that trample red mud across the wooden floor of my old

cottage where I sit and type: One novel, two novels, three.

 

But where are all the books? Those public spaces to run fingers over covers

and breathe in the secret scent of stories?

Until now I have been living a life of plenty, where food is abundant and books are not

the preserve of the wealthy; where reading is for everybody.

 

So I trawl this confusing land of mountains, plains, wild animals, sea and sky

without the signals of books to help guide me, instead running fingertips over the spines of

bookshop tomes, suffocating in their plastic cases, words knocking against their prisons,

for it is only in their reading they are set free.

 

How can it be, I wonder, that these books are the reserve of the rich and one day I

take a box of storybooks to a local school; watch as the torn-shirt schoolchildren

lift them reverently like the treasures they are and press the shiny covers

against their cheeks.

 

5

In England once again where the sky bleeds at dusk into the trodden, stretched land

across wheat and borage, cow-grazed common and medieval, cylindrical spires.

North as the crow flies to a fine city, a watering hole and place of prayer on each corner

but more importantly, this is a city of stories, where secrets and tales dwell.

 

And I find myself once more borrowing books, reading books,

ordering books, discovering books, smelling books, eating books if I could.

But it is the Monday afternoon, that hour of stolen, sandwiched time

between school and clubs I build into our weekly rhythm, steady as a heartbeat.

 

We drive across the city of stories until it rises, a great ship of glass and steel

between market, mall and spire, revolving doors spiralling us through

out of the cold. No matter the storms that rage outside and within my head

here I am Warm. Comforted. Safe.

 

I see that my young ones imbibe this truth also; their bodies respond to it

and as the rain spatters against their glass ship I watch my children,

one cross-legged, another sprawled on her stomach and the third cradled and held by the shelf,

rocked gently on a sea of books.

Me around the age I started falling in love with books

✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎ ✳︎

 

Public libraries across the UK are closing at an alarming rate. We cannot let this happen. Do you support your local library? Whether you’re in the UK or beyond, I’d love to hear about your personal experiences of public libraries.

To compliment this post, read about the power of public space poetry a reflection on the emancipation of women in literature alongside female franchise & how it’s not enough to say a reading culture in Kenya simply doesn’t exist.

Thank you for reading ♥︎

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