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Love & Loss: A Literacy Catalog by Christine Stewart-Nuñez

Airline & Aurora: At eight years old I wrote the names of neighborhood streets on birch bark with a felt-tip pen, then rolled and bound my scrolls with string. The letter “A” looked like the spade I used to dig a hole where I buried them to make my own lost library.

Brittanica: The salesman left the “A” encyclopediafor my family to peruse. We couldn’t afford the set, so I read that volume, pages turning crisp, “aardvark” illustrated with a photo.

Card Catalog of influential poets: Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Robert Frost, Maxine Kumin, Sylvia Plath, Carl Sandburg, Anne Sexton, May Swenson, Diane Wakoski, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams.

“Didactic,” a poem: Throw open the library of your body. Run your fingertips across this shelf’s spine, over atlases, dictionaries, novels. Your hands—wide, strong—are lenses that ignite encyclopedic knowledge; let’s burn in biography, biology. Ask questions. Unlock the map of scars, read lines of ribs, linger at the hip, memorize the archives’ lips. Stretch your supple pages until you are laid open and known.

El Camino Real was my mother’s high school Spanish book. In fifth grade, I memorized lunes, martes, domingo, and yo hablo español without understanding the language’s logic.

Fortress: a favorite simile. The library is like a citadel, defending knowledge; the library is like stronghold, defending culture; the library is like bulwark against boredom; the library is an escape.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: In Greece, I read One Hundred Years of Solitude at the beach, at the café, at the park, at the market. I looked up to see José Arcadio ordering a cappuccino next to me.

Holden, my oldest son, loves Yoshi’s Feast; Hop on Pop; Hurray! A Piñata; Moody Cow; The Cat in the Hat; I Will Never Eat a Tomato; and Skippyjon Jones Lost in Spice.

“Irony,” a poem: The poet’s son lost language, his seizure-stabbed brain a sieve oozing words.

Judy Blume: After finishing worksheets and cursive practice across the blue dotted lines, I transgressed. I retreated behind the three-sided particle board to devour anything by Judy Blume—Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; Tiger Eyes; Blubber.

K: Missing. A mis-shelved memory.

“Literacy,” a poem: Inside GameStop, Holden kneels in front of Xbox, Wii, Nintendo, PlayStation. Plastic boxes arranged on shelves. Screens again, I sigh. Plants shooting peas and slogging zombies, fat red birds launched at green pigs, jigsaws, a library of Dr. Seuss, episodes of Word Girl defending cartoon land against Lady Redundant Woman—his iPad the visual center of his word-shifting world. He studies the spines, lifts his hand, extends his fingers, and pulls one game off. Sonic, he says, opening it, Sonic the Hedgehog. He points to letters on the inner pocket: Sonic the Hedgehog. I know this game. This will be his only utterance for hours. As he snaps the plastic cover closed and slides it back, a memory emerges: my hand easing On the Banks of Plum Creek next to the other Little House books, the scent of paperbacks and pencil shavings, dust swirling in the air.

Maze: a favorite metaphor: I seek solace. I seek secrets. I lose my worries in the stacks. I lose myself in arms of books. I lose my place in other worlds.

National Library and Archives of Québec, Montréal: Xavier, my youngest son, toddles up the steps, hand on wall of glass. Stacks of books and nooks for reading spaced by maple scrim. Four floors up and my feet tingle as I peer between the stacks. 3.5 million items to lend.

O child with thick glasses! O book-clutching child! O child with anger in her heart! O child crossing Imagination and Reality. O creative child! O child hungry for silence! O child reading screens! O child with maps in his mind! Welcome home.

Pergamum: An ancient Greek city near the Aegean Sea. During the Hellenistic Age, rulers built a library rivaled only by Alexandria’s. A woman, Flavia Melitene, was a central patron. According to legend, Marc Antony gifted the library’s 200,000 volumes to Cleopatra. In the ruins, I imagined patrons opening parchment scrolls, the western world’s knowledge at their fingertips.

Quiver & Question: If I could name the aisles in a library—an act of intimacy—I’d map them into neighborhoods of the alphabet. I would write at the intersection of “Quiver” and “Question.”

Robert Browning: I imagine my Grandma Grafton gazing on a field of new snow from the window of an Iowa farmhouse. It’s 1925; she’s 11. Around her shoulders, a blue and white cotton quilt. She tucks her bobbed hair behind her ear and opens a copy of Robert Browning’s poems printed in 1899. Sixty years later, she’ll give that book to me.   

St. Pius X Library: We stacked our checked-out books on tables as Sister Marcell directed: “Take a seat. Sit what God gave you to sit on! You’re not birds.” Then she opened Two-Minute Mysteries and read one before the bell. Rapt, I was eager to think through words.

Theresa: My sister’s death sparked my writing practice. At the vigil, I scribbled good-bye letters on receipts from my mother’s purse and tucked them between Theresa’s suede skirt and the satin coffin lining. At home, I pulled out a broken typewriter and fed it notebook paper. The typewriter dinged and clicked as I pecked out a narrative using red and black ink, the % sign taking place of any U’s.

Urbandale Public Library: On my pink Huffy, I biked past the pool where my peers sunned themselves to find The Boxcar Children series (Theresa’s recommendation). I admired the teenagers who re-shelved books with the poise I hoped to have one day.  

Valentines: On a box of conversation hearts, Holden wrote H-O-L and fumbled. With love, we always read between the lines. With pinkie and index fingers up and thumb out, I pushed the sign for love into his line of vision. I love you, too, he said, then curled his fingers around mine and squeezed.

World’s Best Fairy Tales: Theresa’s one-thousand plus paged volume. Red and gold tattered cover.Read twice.

Xavier, my toddler, loves: Duck Truck; Monster Trucks; Things That Go; Homes; Dump Truck Gets to Work; and The Construction Alphabet Book.   

“Yellow Wallpaper, The.” I can trace my feminism to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story. A man told her to rest. A man told her she was fragile. A man told her not to use her mind. Hell no.

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: Audre Lorde challenged and extended what I knew to be true. A woman writing history and biography and myth. A feminist womanist poet mother black lesbian writing her life in all its complexity. Hell yes.

 

Christine Stewart-Nuñez is an Associate Professor of English at South Dakota State University

Works Cited

The poem "Didactic" by Christine Stewart-Nuñez was first published in Natural Bridge in spring 2013. The poems "Irony" and "Literacy" were published in her book Bluewords Greening byTerrapin Books in 2016.