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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, February 08, 2003
    Alive in the Library
    While I was enjoying a month's hospitality with The Corrymeela Community last November, Jan Sutch Pickard was taking a month's break from her role as warden of Iona Abbey. She spent it, unusually and interestingly, doing a sort-of pilgrimage of ancient texts - visiting libraries, pulling on special gloves to thumb through some of the most ancient and revered documents in our heritage, including the Book of Kells, and discovering the stories around their production.

    Jan's a poet and editor of some distinction (you'll find some of her work at Wild Goose Publications) and has a lovely eye for detail. She can make - and has made - a subject which could be grey and dusty, into something colourful and alive.

    I know this because at the end of November we met at Corrymeela, swopped a few thoughts about how our times had gone. And later I was delighted to receive some of Jan's poetic reflections on her month. With her permission, here's one of them:

      Just as the snowdrop needs frost
      to rest and to germinate,
      so libraries need silence:

      stacks of silent tomes
      hushed scholars
      whispered instructions
      slippered feet, gloved hands,
      muted computers.

      Sometimes libraries surprise
      with unlikely acquisitions:
      a snoozing tramp amid newspapers;
      eloquent love letters, penned
      by hands long since crumbled into dust;
      a harp not played in living hearing;
      mummy cases opened like Russian dolls,
      disclosing the child of an Egyptian priest
      clenched in an aching silence.

      What have these to do with books,
      and the lively faith of their makers
      whose daily work was sowing
      symbols across the page?

      What have these relics to do
      with meaning coming through
      like a green shoot Ð
      entering our minds like a flight of birds?

      Taciturn and tired folk, things worn out,
      exhale the dead air of a treasure house;
      meanwhile the held breath of a library
      is not the silence of death
      but of expectation.

      The books are waiting for what will come next:
      the books are waiting for the word to become flesh.