Essays & Observations

Charles Vallely. With warm regard. R. I. P.

Customers, collectors, clients – whatever one calls the people whose random acts of kindness and conspicuous consumption keep me in business – they come and go. But friends who attend to and appreciate what I do, in all its quixotic, self-defeating folly – they are rare, inspiring, and irreplaceable. And another one of them – and the best of them – is now gone.

Just before the New York Antiquarian Book fair, Charlie Vallely emailed me to ask if I wouldn’t mind proof-reading his latest poem before he submitted it to a literary journal – and to wish me luck at the fair. I told him that I’d be happy to proof his poem – a thoroughly enjoyable task he’d asked me to do numerous times over the past few years, his spelling being perfectly atrocious – and I asked him if it could wait until after the fair, to which, of course, he agreed. It was not urgent.

As to the fair, I told him that I was not optimistic about my prospects, explaining, or complaining, that if selling first editions of The Great Gatsby and other great works of American fiction was what it takes to be a successful bookseller today, then I, whose stock-in-trade consists mainly of poetry, was in for four days of disappointment and disillusionment.

Charlie responded reassuringly, generously stretching an analogy for my benefit. He reminded me that “Money – which, as you know, I'm very fond of – isn’t everything. Ian Fleming pulled in a lot more cash than T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore combined. A lot more. They had the satisfaction of being what they were.” Needless to say, Eliot, Stevens and Moore were Charlie’s favorite American poets.

It is no small kindness to be reminded of one’s own worth, however unpopular and unprofitable it may be, however inconsequential it may appear, or however hidden it may be from one’s own consciousness. The satisfaction of being what we are, or who we are, is often tenuous – at least for the less self-aggrandizing or self-delusional among us. But to understand and accept ourselves as we are, and to make the best of it, is just about the best we can hope to do, and hardly an ignominious achievement.

Many of us labor under our own internalized sense of failure, our real or imagined inadequacies – as if there were any effective difference – our lack of accomplishment. Some adjust or compensate; some turn to drink or drugs; some to sex and gambling. Most of us find some way, sudden or gradual, to take away the pain of self-criticism and self-punishment. Most of us fall short of our own expectations, one way or another, at one time or another – but whether we feel we have failed ourselves, or our fathers and mothers, or our families and friends, I suspect we all find ourselves sooner or later in the same place as many of our more successful colleagues, who may, after all, be no more fortunate, and no less unhappy, than the great Jay Gatsby.

Charlie was a poet and a scholar, and I suspect at times even a gentleman. He loved ballerinas, and classical ballet, and he could play the gallant’uomo – no doubt even more gallantly when he was young and a tall, dark and handsome Irish bull. I don’t know what the Irish would have called him. I suspect the Italians would have called him un grand’uomo. He could be magnificent. He used to call himself the American Pushkin – an appellation that had more currency and resonance in Russia than in America, where we have no national poets like the great classical civilizations, or the best modern cultures. Greece had Homer; Rome – Virgil; Italy – Dante; England – Shakespeare; and Russia – Pushkin. Of course, America has its own myth-makers: Hawthorne and Melville, to name only the very greatest – but they are all novelists except Whitman – who of course aspired to be a national poet, and had he written a novel instead of a very long and protean poem, he might have made it.

Charlie had a profound and prodigious knowledge of literature, especially poetry, and a prodigious memory to sustain it. So far as I could tell, there was little in the world of poetry, or throughout the enormous range of world poetry, that Charlie didn’t know. There was nothing parochial or provincial about his love of poetry, and unlike most of us, the range of his knowledge far surpassed his own particular favorites. He could quote poem after poem by poets whom he readily pronounced inferior, second-rate, hardly worth remembering – not infrequently poets for whom I expressed admiration. And then Charlie would quickly apologize for having hurt my feelings, for having offended my peculiar and inexplicable preferences, occasionally admitting that he himself harbored a secret fondness, an unmentionable admiration, even a certain jealousy, for the very same poets.

Charlie was a book collector; or rather, he had a large and diverse scholarly library, much of which he regretted being forced by straitened circumstances to keep in storage. He vehemently disassociated himself from collectors for whom books were merely objects of status rather than knowledge or scholarship. At the same time, Charlie could be intensely jealous of certain rare and valuable books, particularly association copies of important works of poetry, to which he felt entitled – not in the facile and foolish sense of the word entitlement today, but in a more profound, and legitimate, sense. There were books whose true worth, one felt, he believed he appreciated more than anyone else – and probably did – books whose words he knew by heart, by poets whose lives he knew intimately, and with whom he felt a sympathetic kinship and identity.

Charlie was also a keen observer, and an acute critic, of the rare book trade. As a long-time denizen of the Boston used and rare book world, Charlie had seen his own financial fortunes fall at the same time as he saw the prices of rare books rise far beyond his means. Whereas at one time he had been able to buy many of the books he wanted, he realized that increasingly rare books – or even scarce used books – were being priced not for book-lovers like him, but for the Hollywood and Wall Street collectors Charlie felt certain could not properly appreciate what they alone could afford to buy, and therefore did not deserve to own such splendid artifacts. Not entirely out of jealousy or envy, Charlie would inveigh against the absurdity – or simply the impracticability, the futility – of the astronomical prices he saw dominating the rare book world. Increasingly, Charlie felt disenfranchised by, and alienated, from a world – a community – that he had grown up in, and which he had inhabited as a favored and prodigal son.

Within the book trade, Charlie is known – at least professionally – primarily as the author of introductions to a number of distinguished catalogues from Lame Duck Books, and several other catalogues issued jointly by Lame Duck Books and myself. A great admirer of John Ashbery’s poetry, Charlie also wrote a wonderful introduction to Far From the Rappahannock, a catalogue devoted to the work of the New York School of Poets that I published in conjunction with Locus Solus Rare Books – a catalogue that Charlie incidentally christened.

After Charlie stopped drinking, he seems to have turned away from the raucous streets and bars and bookshops of Boston, and returned to his vocation, devoting himself more diligently – as it had been impossible to do before – to that solitary “craft and sullen art” which was always the heart and soul of his ambition. He had begun writing – or revising – a brilliant series of poems that he initially fancied publishing under the pseudonym of Felix Bratishenko, but then decided that his own poems should rightfully appear under his own name. He had readied for publication a long poem, “Carlo and Emilia”, which is about to appear in Fulcrum magazine; and another dialogue, “Royaume-Farfelu”, was almost ready – pending proofing – to be submitted to another literary magazine.

I want to believe that Charlie’s last days were happy, filled with a sense of pride – although inevitably a tentative and diffident sense of pride – at his long-anticipated but unaccustomed accomplishment. I suspect, however, that for Charlie, drunk or sober, happiness remained elusive to the end. But to have seen his poems in print, to have been able to share his success with his family and friends, both believers and unbelievers, would have cheered him up. Now that Charlie’s uncertainties and hesitations are sadly behind us, perhaps more of his poetry will be published, bringing cheer to those of us who have long awaited the opportunity to read it.

The last time Charlie wrote to me, on April 8th, he asked me how the book fair had gone, and added: “Last week was a difficult one for me, as I came down with a virulent flu; and this week I'm enduring modifications to my psychotropic drug regimen.” He died on Sunday morning April 13th of a heart attack. He was 54.

GALLOWAY: If my people understood.
Understood how the snow filled up the wards,
The plaster drifting as we walked the yard.

GOOLKASIAN: Those ceilings have collapsed, your Highness.
The corridors have long been emptied, the toilets
Drained. We mustn’t lose heart now. The mattresses
Are stacked and dried, the springs have rusted.
Trust me, Sire. The floral papers are peeling
Off the walls like skin.

- - - - - - - - -

GALLOWAY: Will it be cold in the tomb of porphyry, Joe?
Will I leak and splutter over everything,
Dripping in ignominy as I always did, tied
To that iron bedstead? Do you remember it?

GOOLKASIAN: We are away from there now.


[From the unpublished poem “Royaume-Farfelu” by Charles Vallely]