Signed first editions.

I’m not sure I’ve written much here about the small tradition of books Brian and I have given each other over the past year – some simply rare and beautiful, some autographed by their (now deceased) authors. It was an early excitement to discover that we are both people who enjoy the book not only for the contents within, but additionally for its form and aesthetic (Kindle be damned, McSweeney’s Quarterly has it right).

The first book was Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a 1947 edition with original pencil and ink drawings that I found early in our relationship at a rarities dealer in Ottawa. A book I fell in love with at first sight: woven cloth cover, odd-sized format, and exuberant populist artwork to match Whitman’s own hopeful poetry. I bought it for myself on a whim, but when walking away from the store I had a niggling thought…. perhaps this would be a gift for Brian. That is, if I knew him better, or for longer, or had an inkling of what type of thing was an appropriate first gift between us. I put it aside for Christmas, reasoning that if we were still together by then (3 months), I would know whether it was suitable or not.

And as it came upon us we were much more at ease, and so I wrapped this precious thing in star-covered cloth tied with a black velvet ribbon, offering it to him unsure still what his reaction would be. I had still never been in his house, you see, and I had no idea until he unwrapped my gift that in his home was a special bookshelf devoted to old and rare books (in particular poetry). He looked down at the book, and then up at me with some surprise, and I knew it was as perfect a gift then as any I could have chosen – apparently confirming that his secret hope to be well-matched had been met.

For my birthday I received a first edition (1936) of Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes and a few months later I tracked down a first edition signed copy of Upton Sinclair’s two-volume Boston in time for the start of Brian’s 36th year. Upon his return from New York City this summer he bestowed upon me a signed paperback copy of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book! in addition to a few other small treasures. These on top of many other less-collectible novels and comics that we have shared with each other in the days and months that became ours. A small treasury of coveted literary history which we envision putting on a shared bookshelf at some point in the future. (Geeky and romantic, yes, I know.)

This past weekend Brian gave me an unexpected gift “just because” of a first edition, signed copy of Al Purdy’s Sundance at Dusk – a slim chapbook in imminent danger of losing its pages to the cheap glue used in Canadian publishing at that time. Purdy is one of my favourite poets and has been since I first read his poetry in my grade twelve year of high school – a true character out of the wilds of Ontario, hopped a train and came to BC as an impoverished worker and writer where he spent most of his adult years give or take his trips to the Arctic, to Cuba, to wherever he plucked his images from. A figure of rough romance and excess, he was the landlord to some friends when I lived in Victoria and apparently always willing to throw down some literary critique for even the lowliest of poets.

This copy of Sundance is in pretty good shape if you don’t count the weakening glue, but I was dismayed to open it to the first page and see red-marked edits that someone had made on the poem “Lament”. I said to Brian, “who would go in and edit a poet’s printed work?” until he pointed out to me that the edits and Purdy’s signature were in the same colour of red ink. And when I looked closer, the lettering was of the same style (his signature is one very literal to his handwriting). At second glance it appeared that Purdy had not only signed this copy, but had corrected misprints for whoever had owned it…. Which I checked against the collected works of Purdy (Beyond Remembering to confirm that in fact, the “correct” version of the poem is as Purdy himself changed 32 years ago.

Better than simply a signed first edition, though I cannot say why. Because it was held for some moments by a poet I eternally admire? Because it proves his immortality despite passing on a few years ago? Because it is proof of his irritability at the printer who typeset his words improperly and thus gives the impression of the man he was? A strangely precious thing in any case, not unlike our tradition of books treasured like shared secrets.

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