In a home where books were scarce
except for shelves of Wodehouse
and my father’s library books,
our holy temple of the word
was Newnes’ Comprehensive Dictionary.
Dark blue and leather-bound,
the title was tooled in gold,
with endpapers marbled indigo.
Stout from all the truth it held,
this book became our referee
its only rivals, The Family Doctor
and Masterworks of British Art.
Some words came with an etching
exotic facts received a photograph,
black and white, of course:
triremes engraved in stone,
Venetian glass, the Taj Mahal,
distant scenes beyond my reach
here, at the bottom of the known world.
Such a child, in nineteen-forty-eight,
was unlikely ever to see
“The Martello Tower at Hythe”,
“A White Peacock” or, especially,
“A Potter at his Wheel in Old Japan”.
Now I save the Newnes for crosswords,
seizing any chance to search
for stranger words not covered by
its glossy, modern counterparts
in a house too stuffed with books.
I’ve found iridium and chrism,
majuscule, quinta, ipecacuanha …
these words that beckon and beguile
my reading father left for me to find.
I even catch the smoky scent of him
in creamy pages, hand-sewn, and still
full of the old power to comfort and inform.