.

The fire roars and spits within the square
Blazing angry red. The rabble looks
With savage joy; their whooping lards the air.
Such glee to see the burning of the books!

One man stands apart from the hot flame,
His eyes averted, grimly cloaked in shade.
Aldous Senex is the old one’s name—
The former state librarian by trade.

Senex is far older than he seems
And this is not the first mob that he’s faced;
For history is fraught with pious screams
That certain texts deserve to be erased.

Senex keeps a vault beneath his home
Secret and concealed from other men.
Here he safeguards many an old tome
Until they’re safe to see the light again.

A Bible story stirred the old man’s scheme,
His hidden shelves recalling Noah’s Ark.
A world where books aren’t threatened is his dream;
For even unkind words can light the spark

Of scholarship and nuance and debate.
Senex has saved books throughout the ages.
In Alexandria he saved the weight
Of epic works by Greek and Roman sages.

When jihad came he rescued Christian scrolls;
And Torahs from Inquisitors of Spain;
When French insurgents tossed books onto coals,
Senex rescued them from Terror’s Reign.

Soon the Bolsheviks and Nazis came,
And China’s war on all things from the West.
Senex saw that all books burn the same
For everyone has something they detest.

His chamber hides the authors some want banned.
Flaubert and Lawrence, Twain and Morrison,
Margaret Mitchell, Rowling and Ayn Rand—
Redeemed due to the burn scars on his skin.

Safe in his Ark: the wisdom of the ages;
Man’s foolishness as well, for in his view
Our history is not just writ by sages.
All books help reveal what’s false and true.

The old man turns to face the shouting mob.
He’s had enough. He’ll risk his very life.
As Man’s librarian it’s now his job
To save the past sans fear of death or strife.

Aldous Senex rage etched on his brow,
Cries out with all the courage he can give:
“Stop the fire! End the madness now!
For every single book deserves to live!”

He stands revealed. The rabble turns on him
As rioters inevitably do.
Does he survive? And do the fires dim?
The story’s end, my friends, is up to you.

.

.

Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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31 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    This is wonderful, Brian –
    great poetry and great story-telling!

    Reply
  2. Cynthia Erlandson

    I agree with Joe. This is great — and needed — writing!

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you, Cynthia! I don’t know if I’ve done it justice, but the subject matter is so important!

      Reply
      • Julian D. Woodruff

        It is indeed a good poem, Mr. Yapko, especially the ending. I’m not convinced that librarians are the best guardians of books, though–not as things stand today.

  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    China has a long history of the wholesale burning of politically incorrect books, going as far back as one of the nation’s earliest emperors, Qin Shi Huang. It’s impossible to assess how much of China’s cultural patrimony was destroyed in this way.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      China’s history is indeed heartbreaking. To be honest, I knew very little about China’s Cultural Revolution until I saw the film “The Red Violin” twenty years ago or so. Then I saw “The Last Emperor.” Both shocked me deeply.

      Reply
  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, not only is this tour de force of a poem a smooth and effortless read, the fine arrangement carries with it a tale that all should heed. I particularly like the use of the word “senex”, in keeping with the clever closing line; “The story’s end, my friends, is up to you.” What a moral dilemma this would leave many in if they were the ones who had to make the ultimate decision. It’s all very easy to trot along with the fashionable herd… but, if you were out there alone, setting precedence… then the whole evil debacle might be a different story entirely. Superb poetry with a superb and philosophical message. Thank you! Also, when it comes to allowing room for the reader to bring their own thoughts to the poem… you have gone above and beyond. I love it!

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you so much, Susan. I really loved your book-burning poem as well. I am so troubled by the issues of cancelling history and culture. More than troubled. I am offended and frightened by it. When mobs topple statues of Lincoln and Gandhi, when both Huckleberry Finn and Gone With the Wind are considered so offensive that they need to be banned… What’s next? Shakespeare has some things that offend me. Is he next? And how long until we get to the Bible? This impulse seems to be buried deep in our history. It keeps happening over and over. I have wondered what it would be like to stand up to that book-burning/statue toppling crowd but my bravery falters. I’ve written letters to the editor but, in the long run, I think poetry is more powerful. Glad you and I are on the same side.

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Brian, we are most certainly on the same side and (dare I say it) I think we may be making a difference. Having attended a couple of Zoom poetry readings (one for a 25 year old UK ezine and one for a UK university), I haven’t shied away from rhyme, rhythm and rapture, and it’s been very well received. This is from platforms who have wholeheartedly embraced free verse for a very long time. Also, I have thrown myself into the lion’s den with my political viewpoint (not just poetically) and, after the initial shock, and a nasty email from one angry member of the group, I’ve been invited back to read more of my works and have been very well received.

        The only reason I’m mentioning this is to encourage others to do the same. It’s not easy – it’s caused me more than a little anxiety – but, it’s worth it. I’m beginning to believe there are more people out there who think like us than we are led to believe.

        Once more unto the breach, Mr. Yapko, once more!

    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Susan, thank you for braving the lion’s den! I have a little experience advocating on behalf of some causes that I believe in strongly but that are not necessarily popular. It really does cause anxiety but I don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t follow my conscience in such situations. I appreciate your willingness to stand up for what you believe. I think the best poets are not only erudite and articulate — they also have strong spines!

      Reply
  5. Mo

    Brian,
    This was one relevant and powerful poem. I enjoyed reading it very much.

    Reply
  6. C.B. Anderson

    Nice idea, Brian, and great rhymes to boot. Once again we must ask, when will the insanity end? Maybe never, which is precisely why we need to keep on writing until the seas dry up and the mountains crumble. If not, then what will we think of ourselves at the end of time?

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you, C.B. You nail it when you talk about the “insanity.” I fully agree with you. We who value culture and history — we who are unwilling to cancel culture or rewrite history — have a responsibility to keep writing and shining a light on the implications of what is happening. I love what you say about how we will regard ourselves at the end of time. Taking a stand is important. Accountability is important. Thank you for your astute observation of how truly monumental the stakes are!

      Reply
  7. Paul Freeman

    I lived in Cairo in 1986-87, in the neighbourhood where the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz resided. He worked as a civil servant his whole life because he couldn’t earn enough from writing.

    A couple of his books fell foul of the authorities and instead of burning they were banned – The Children of Gebelayi being one of them, in which characters’ lives follow the same paths as prophet in the Holy book.

    Banning is by far the easiest way to prevent ideas spreading and occurs everywhere, along with self-censorship.

    Thanks for highlighting this issue in such an accessible way, Brian.

    Reply
  8. BRIAN YAPKO

    You’re very welcome. And thank you for sharing your experience in Cairo. Book burning does seem to be a ubiquitous form of censorship, but there’s more to it than that — it’s a vicious and theatrical way of publicly attacking both the author and the author’s words. I think it’s barbaric.

    Reply
  9. Sally Cook

    Dear Brian –
    Pertinent, or should I say crucial subject, clearly presented?
    Isn’t it remarkable how we have continued over the ages to try to stop the flow of ideas?
    And yet they keep coming.
    Ask Joseph S. Salemi about the
    attempted assassination of Huckleberry Finn and how he stepped up to the plate. Mr. Salemi is a very modest man.
    I also think of the poets Tessitore, who must live in their midst, Jarvis Bryant, who brings a fresh perspective from another hemisphere, and Anderson, who brings his considerable knowledge.
    And I think also of the perspicacity of Evan Mantyk, who has provided all of us with a forum — both for poetry and opinion.
    Just for expressing my opinion on free verse in my poem “What A Whit Is Worth”, I was subjected to the whirlwind of the usual subjects who proceeded to shriek to the world that I knew nothing. It was my first submission here, and a few years ago, and I was astounded, but later realized I had attracted the attention of a nest of free versers who weren’t about to allow any questioning of their idols, Whitman andWilliams, (and by extension Pound) . They came from everywhere, but I began to recognize names and places, and realized they were all people who had drunk the kool aid, as it were, and were now people of Pound-land, who brook no opposition.
    Thank God the only ones of that stripe who post here are always willing to argue a point, which is as it should be.
    Please continue to write on any or all subjects. Any side, although I have a feeling I can anticipate which one ! Thanks for posting.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Sally, thank you for words of inspiration. These are indeed troubling times for those of us who believe in the free flow of ideas and an objective look at history. I’m grateful to be in the company of so many brave souls who are willing to go on record with ideas which (at least in my mind) should not be considered controversial. I don’t especially enjoy conflict, but I also believe it’s important for people to step up to the plate, even if it’s uncomfortable. We owe that to the future.

      Reply
  10. BRIAN YAPKO

    Julian, thank you for your kind comment and your unhappy — but probably accurate — observation!

    Reply
  11. Sally Cook

    I truly believe that this is an extremely dangerous time.
    Our border is open, our actions are controlled; next come the infinite number of ways in which legal guns and votes will be controlled. By that time, of course, the Constitution will have been infected with a Virus and shot through with holes.

    Reply
  12. Margaret Coats

    Concerning Julian Woodruff’s observation that librarians may not be the best guardians of books, I would say that they are similar to the rest of us, and therefore Brian’s final line, “The story’s end, my friends, is up to you,” applies to them just as much as to all readers, writers, thinkers, speakers, teachers. The difference with librarians is simply that they have a great deal of practical control over what happens to an enormous number of books. At present, they are facing not only demands to ban, but the catastrophic drop in book use caused by reliance on computers. As always, it takes courage and resilience to implement good policies–or even to know what policies may be best in the long run. It’s fairly easy to know what policies are bad–and sometimes difficult to resist them. So here’s to Brian, Julian, Susan, and others who do what they can in their situations, and to everyone else who responds to Brian’s call.

    I myself am most grateful to the English antiquarians who saved as much as they could from Henry VIII’s destruction of English monastic libraries. Thanks to them, I have a few examples by English authors of the medieval French and Latin poetry forms I love. There must have been many more such lyrics in all three languages, but too many were used as paper to wrap pies or sausages in the sixteenth century.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you, Margaret, for sharing your insights and observations. I once worked in a library as a clerk so I know how protective many librarians are regarding “their” books — and I’m so grateful to them! Of course that was before everything was computerized so I imagine it’s a different world for them now. Thanks also for sharing your story about the antiquarians who preserved what they could from Henry’s destruction of the monasteries. That’s a fascinating story and glad that at least something got preserved.

      Reply
  13. Yael

    This is a magnificent poem, I really enjoy reading it. The ancient Great Controversy story told from the perspective of an ever watchful librarian is unique and one I had not considered before. It brings to my mind Stephen’s speech of Acts chapter 7 and the reaction of the crowd, which turns on the speaker to do him violence.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you very much, Yael! Although I knew he was martyred for his speech, I had not thought of St. Stephen in this context. It’s a very meaningful connection.

      Reply
  14. Joseph S. Salemi

    Remember the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” orchestrated in 15th-century Florence by the Dominican crackpot Girolamo Savonarola. Secular books and rare illuminated manuscripts, tapestries and paintings, elegant apparel, objets d’art, and anything else that showed exquisite craft and that delighted the human eye and taste for the beautiful — all of it was burned by a group of sick religious zealots who wanted the citizens of Florence to live in a theocracy, wearing hairshirts.

    Subtract the pietistic religious veneer, and you see exactly what we have today: left-liberal fanatics demanding that we abase ourselves in guilt, deny ourselves pleasure and beauty, and live a life of penance under the control of retreat-masters. This Wuhan-Flu hysteria and lockdown are just the beginning, folks.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      I came very, very close to using “Bonfire of the Vanities” as the poem’s title. You’re quite right about the theocratic instincts of the far left which demands not only that laws be changed but that hearts be coerced into compliance. One dare not speak one’s mind if it goes against the prevailing wind. One must accept the far left view on all things with enthusiasm or suffer career ruin, boycott and extreme social shaming. It’s really quite bolshevik.

      Reply
  15. David Watt

    Thank you Brian for adroitly penning a poem for our times.
    Whether it be through the burning of books, or the insidious removal of ‘unfashionable’ books from library shelves, the madness continues today.
    Our local library is greatly diminished in quantity and quality of reading material compared to just two years ago.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you very much, David! I agree with you. It’s very worrisome.

      Reply

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