My sister just came home from her two-week vacation in London. She had what sounds like a glorious time while there – went to the British Museum, the Tate, the Courtauld Gallery, the Old Bailey, the British Library, searched for Newby’s elderflower and lemon tea, saw a play at the Globe theater, went on a sunset field trip out to Stonehenge, heard a small choir sing in the crypt (all songs about birds!) at St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, ate at a few lovely restaurants (as well as a few lovely food booths at the Tachbrook Market.) I imagine she also did her share of buying souvenir do-dads for family and friends here at home. On her 10+hour flight home, she carried a present for me in her carry-on:
Sweet, sweet, sweet! I have a little collection of pencil boxes- some you might call elegant, others plain, others tattered, but all functional – some are wooden, some are old Bakelite boxes from the 30’s., some cardboard, and one (now!) metal. The first pencil box I ever owned — I was a seven-year-old who loved school supplies, what can I say?– was one I bought with my own hard-earned money the first time I visited San Francisco’s Chinatown. Wish I still had it – it had a bird in flight on it, above an arched bridge. I treasured it; even so, it’s gone – how does that happen? Well, here’s a poem of mine about it. The poem was first published in the Threepenny Review (go there and subscribe as soon as you’re done reading this post):
I put four bits on the counter
and the box was mine.
Six yellow pencils fit there
side by side, I was perfectly addled,
I was a goner – even before I knew
the alphabet, I knew its cedar perfume –
I flew over the high-humped bridge
painted on the top, over the willow,
the m-stroke for a bird, everything
was suggestion then, before
the putting on of too fine a point.
People expected me to come
to my senses, save the change
in my burning pockets, after all
the box was wooden, cheap
Chinatown, but half a dollar
went a long way toward heaven
when heaven was closer.
So my new pencil box from London has no bridge, no willow tree – it lists stations on the London Underground. I remember riding the Tube line up to Hampstead – past Camden Town, Chalk Farm, Belsize Park – when I was there as a college student, caring for the daughters of a professor from Berkeley. I did a lot of walking around when I was there – London is a great walking-around town (see Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s recent posts on this blog from her 2-year stay in London!) Charles Dickens would agree with me, as would Virginia Woolf, whose essay titled “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” (you can read it here) I printed up and gave to my sister before she left. It starts like this:
“No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner. As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: “Really I must buy a pencil,” as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter—rambling the streets of London.”
Of course, Woolf was wrong about no one feeling passionate about a lead pencil. I could go on for quite awhile about the swoon-inducing quality of a Staedtler Norica # 2 pencils, my current favorite. Once upon a time I was passionate about (and wrote a prose poem about) my Dixon Ticonderoga 1388 #2 pencils….
Ode to My Dixon Ticonderoga 1388 No. 2
The first pleasure is the deep pleasure of delay: the plain form waiting straight and yellow, lying perpendicular to the edge of my cleared desk. I sit listening to its Quaker moment, its old soul not set to any purpose. Just how long should I wait to take it in my hand for the second pleasure which is the pleasure of its sharpening? That cedar shaft, dried at a white-hot heat, forced by my dome sharpener to make a fine point under pressure – yielding to the third pleasure, the strange joy of exposing its resin-fused core, that stick used to carbonize the brains of poets and the manifesto of the common man who mines the graphite near Los Pozos, Guanajuato. The fourth pleasure, the physical word, like Jehovah’s name, should not be written here. So right to the fifth and final pleasure, the one allowing for my hand’s unplanned errors: the most amazing pink eraser sitting firmly crowned, crimped into the green and gold ferule. This brand new pink eraser – oh, has God ever made anything more pure?
I also remember Julie Paschkis’s post a couple of years ago about how pencils, pens and brushes feel in the hands of an artist. And the poet Marianne Boruch wrote a poem titled “Pencil” which, like my poem tried to do, senses something quasi-religious about them (“…its secret life / is charcoal, the wood already burnt, / a sacrifice.”)
This week kids across the country headed for their first day of a new school year. My grandson down in Oregon filled his backpack with school supplies – I hope there were some pencils and a pencil box in there. It would be nice to think I passed on to him, via my daughter, an appreciation of pencils/pencil boxes, hidden somewhere in the double helix of our DNA.
My sister, who knows me well and who is often instrumental in providing me with pencils, gave me several packets of Dixon Ticonderoga’s as a gift when I went back to college to get my MFA. Now she’s brought me a set of Tube pencils from London. She carried them across the Atlantic Ocean, all the way across the wide North American continent, she made sure they survived the nearly 5000 mile journey tucked safely inside my new pencil box. And they’re on my desk in Seattle now, newly sharpened. I may have shaved off some Tube stations when I put their points on them. But here they are, calling to me. And what do you do when a pencil calls to you? You write.
By the way, if you’re a follower of Poetry Friday, it’s being hosted this week by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater at her blog, The Poem Farm. You can head over there (after you first follow my suggestion to subscribe to the Threepenny Review) to see what other people have posted.