Ruth Barker

The Library, The Body, The World



Open up. The covers come off. The pages turn. The body splits revealing: something else.

And a single line is slightly misremembered: The green field comes up like a lid / Revealing what was better hid (away).  



Metamorphosis 1.

Outside, through the library window, lies a green field. Beneath it are the worms. Above it is the sky. The rain falls between the two in thin lines, joining the clouds to the soil. On the grass, white mushrooms sprout silently, circling the lawns with homothallic fairy rings. The mushrooms stand in chapters, silently holding their secrets. If we knew their language, we could read the ink in their fleshy caps. It is evening, the light is fading, and all is indistinct and mauve.

Inside, on the dry wooden shelves, the books stand with their backs to me. Packed one by one in rows they bare their spines in mute refusal, huddled against the damp in their air. The spines of books are whole, resolute, intact. The spines of books are sure, defining, competent. They have backbone, and are articulate. The lights are on.

Turn the room inside out, and the backbones disappear. Make the library a ghost of itself, inverted, haunting its own shelves. With everything reversed, what once was hidden now stands proud: the stacks and stacks of bristling pages, once flush to the wall and now tasting the library’s light like the delicate gills of pale fungi, their bindings and their definitions, hidden. Instead of spines the shelves hold quires of naked paper, gatherings of pages. The wind comes through the window as in a dream. There are spots of rain and the scent of earth and leaves, and air, is rich on the tongue. On the shelves, the pages breathe like earth stars, or veined and fluttering chanterelles. Mushrooms growing thickly from the wood.

Slowly, the books are growing, spreading their spores and stretching their fleshy stems. With their spines turned away the bound pages are unidentified, becoming merely fat or thin, tall or short, white or yellowed, old or young, but strangely, newly sentient, and capable of dreaming. Neither plant nor beast nor stone, they seem cryptic, mycological in their hesitant vitalism. As bound words the pages are alive, connected, and strong.

There is a slight smell of almonds, or Indian ink. In the bookish dreams of fungus, the library is a sacred space, full of spores from the books’ slow-growing inhabitation. The pages of journals open like dry puffballs open, containing secrets, spaces, possibilities that spread and reproduce. The pages open like our own minds may open, containing all the breadth of past, future, never, could be, would be, should. Like a mouth, like a heart, like a thought, like a prayer. All libraries may be sacred spaces, where geometry is bent by the compound pressure of absent minds and concentrated thoughts. Where resemblance meets resemblance, and each image leaps into the next. Encyclopaedias may be sacred texts, where all the world may lie contained in a finite litany of definition, space, and wonder. Here, the punctuation is alive with haploid nuclei. In the mushroom dream we ask, so what do fungi worship? Around the spongy, living shelves, we find the cause of metamorphoses: the whim of browsing library gods.


Metamorphosis 2.

The library, when empty, is full of gods. It doesn’t matter how the books may lie, with spines towards the wall or out, in order or not, with library code, or blind. The room is compacted with language and a concentration of production that draws the hungry gods. In the library, men and women of deified belief bump translucent limbs and smile apologies as they reach for volume after volume from the shelves, fluttering the mild eukaryotic pages with their hallowed breeze. The numina are reading.

Here is Baalat, The Lady, Goddess of libraries, the twin feathers of her headpiece bobbing upright, brushing the ceiling as she turns her head. Her hands are long and her feet are bare. She reads existence, English, ecliptic, everything, and the words turn to glass beneath the tongue of her mind as it speaks them in silence. In her head, the discrete grains of lexicons are pressed together, made solid and hot and heavy metamorphic. The words are rolled to marbles, to cat’s eyes and chinas and swirls. They roll away, too solid for Baalat’s lucent form. She watches them, small spheres gathered in the shadowed corners of the room. They do not bother her, exactly, these children of her thoughts. It is the boon or bane of holy creatures to create incontinently in the afternoon.

Here is Seshat beside her, She Who Is The Scribe, Goddess of architecture, mathematics, writing, and history. She wears a leopard skin, and annotates a palm-leaf rib, which she holds in her right hand. She is marking dates, putting each in its right place, one after the other, in time. The dark spots on her coat are the stars, inverted, waiting for the night. She makes her notes, looks slowly out of the window, thinking of stretching her measuring cord over the grass to survey the land. Boundaries must constantly be checked. The trees are growing. And there are always more circles on the lawn. On the palms of Seshat’s hands are pitted marks, each one measuring the length of a governing life. And she wipes them, workman-like, across her spotted thighs.

Here is Ganesha, seated at a desk, crowding his bulky body into a wooden chair. There are no thrones here. His mighty elephant’s head is broad and broken tusked; his belly sags soft above his coiling serpent belt; his red skin glows with reflected light; a half moon embedded in his forehead. God of arts and sciences, intellect, writing, and beginnings. Before him the books are piled in heaps, his dextrous trunk caressing folios and leafing sheets of paper. Ganesha’s eyes are small and dark, long lashed, intelligent, as he squints against the artificial light. He reads of latitude, and all the shapes of the world, east and west defined by compass points; and he smiles at the certainties of cartographic structure.

Here is Hermes, interpretor, translator, He Who Is Full of Various Wiles. God of messages, god of things that change from one thing to another, of literature, oratory, poetry, and wit. He has a winged cap, and carries a staff and a tortoise. His purse is slung over one shoulder, and on his feet are winged boots. Libraries are where one thought bleeds into the next and where, when our attention wanders, all divisions and distinctions become blurred, and pleasurable. Hermes finds them useful rooms, ripe for inhabitation. He does not read but swings back on his wooden chair, his feet planted on the desk before him, his naked legs crossed at the ankle.

And here is Saraswati, The One Holding Books And A Veena, Goddess of literature, arts, speech and learning. She is dressed in white so bright that her sari is incandescent, illuminating the room with its refulgent glow. Her four arms are shapely and eloquent, her face is a river, beautiful, shifting, and silvered. She is never still, and her outline is not entirely fixed, slipping in and out of its own line, mutable as a spoken word. She is complicated as a metaphor that does not stay fixed, that does not make sense, that does not tie itself to explanation but resides solely in the half recognition of a dream. Saraswati tells us truths that we do not remember.

Together, they read and eat, chewing through the thoughts of men and women, tasting, testing, and transforming. They are both here and not here, figments and truths, metaphors and bridges undiscovered. The pages turn. Again and again. And they make the gesture sacred; an act imbued, by circumstance, with meaning.



Metamorphosis 3 (before bed).

Outside, through the library window, the rain is easing off. An earthy smell clings to the windowledge, but will soon be gone. The fairy circles will stay, scattered on the grass as some abandoned cipher (squat O’s grown among the green).

You are more sensible than I. One by one you lift each book, rotate it, and replace it; spine out, backbone visible, the contents all contained, kept safe. One by one the shelves regain their colour, as the pale pages are set back, to the walls, and the coloured bindings stand once again resolutely upright. The living, fungal sense of mycelial fragmentation is fading. The vegetative gills are bound again, and labelled with discretion.

It is true that libraries are always full of gods, ready to affect a transformation. They lie among the shelves and rub their cheeks among the shifting pages like cats, even when we cannot see them. It is a pleasure to reverse the books at times, but even right way round they offer up clandestine knowledge, other worlds, new languages and memories, and all the things that must be sacred, and alive, and rustling. There may be marbles rolled among the shelves.

As we climb the stairs slowly before bed, we draw the evening around us, snug and safe. We will dream of libraries, and all who use them. Outside, the wind is blowing. The grass is growing. The mud is turning. The library does not sit in isolation. It is alive, and spreading. And if some day, the covers do come off, the pages will turn, and the bodies will split revealing something else. A line misremembered: The green field comes up like a lid / Revealing what was better hid. In libraries, as elsewhere.