James Baldwin Reads Every Book in the 136th Street Library

Later he'd say he came every day and read every one,
Just another kid with his nose in a book, working
Down the stacks. Floor cleaner, old paper, daily dustiness
Of libraries: here began uprising. Already he knew he was
Different. Argentina and love stories, manganese and peanuts and
Emily Dickinson lived, sang; he trembled as he read
And if you're like that, can you help it? He snuck out of the
House, couldn't wait. Washington froze
At Valley Forge; Huck cried, "All right then, I'll go to hell," and
Angels found work in his head. Librarians
Got to know him, brought new books to the pile.
On fire. Wasn't refuge from the world. Here he ran
Into the world's arms. Already he knew outside the library
Was phoney. A lie was being told,
Told again in the eyes of his sisters, his mother, every
Face on the streets of Harlem. But here, truth and fiction
Stood decimals aparton their shelves. He was
Building himself in a world against it,
Only place in Harlem black spirit could
Range. Later he would call God
A means of liberation. Elephants and Othello, Spanish
And bacteria, here was where all God's works
Had festival, Carthage and sex organs, all the things
God did, math, Michelangelo,and James Baldwin.


John Timpane