. The Bibliophile’s Birth Certificate Marius Michel (1846-1925) was one of the most prominent and gifted bookbinders in France. He produced work in strikingly beautiful and unique designs, and today his bound volumes are precious collector’s items. Marius Michel, maître de reliure, Bound my soul in fine-grained red morocco; Culled from his cache of silk and satin gauze The endpapers of my text’s nativity; And taking infinite and careful pains, He tooled in webs of pigment and gold leaf Covers and corners, in a chaste design; And with his true edge, die, and fillet wheel He put (with golden fleurons) on my spine The place and date of my editio princeps. . . The Chemist Arranges His Social Calendar Acquaintances are irreducible Precipitates refusing to dissolve. Yet each one thinks himself pure aqua regia Kept in bottles of impervious quartz. All that’s left: the residue of faces And the compounded salts of their reactions. So I maintain my periodic table To keep track of each rendezvous and date. Which otherwise neglected, might explode Like oxygen (the pure kind) in a flame. . . Some Comments on the Above Poems In my previous posting (January 9) on the matter of using “conceits” in poetry, the two examples that I gave perhaps did not provide the clearest instances of what a conceit should do in a poem. The first rule, in my view, is that it should be sustained long enough to be the dominating metaphoric element in the poem, subsuming everything else to itself. The second is that it should be unexpected enough to baffle the reader, while at the same time compelling him to visualize the conceit’s metaphor as pertinent and plausible, despite its strangeness. The reader at the poem’s conclusion might say “That’s absurd,” but he should also say “I never would have thought of that.” I try to follow these two guidelines in the poems given above. “The Bibliophile’s Birth Certificate” is in the voice of a rare book collector, the “bibliophile.” The speaker is describing his birth certificate not as the mundane legal document that we all know, but as something intimately connected with the speaker’s identity as a connoisseur of rare books in fine bindings. He imagines it as a volume bound by the famous Marius Michel, and goes on to point out the luxurious details of such a volume: red morocco leather, silk and satin endpapers, gold-leaf designs, and ending with “the place and date” on the book’s spine to indicate that this particular volume is an editio princeps (a “first edition”). A birth certificate is normally the first document connected with anyone’s life, giving the “place and date” of one’s birth and establishing one’s public identity. In this poem the curious idea is that this man’s “birth certificate” is a rare first edition in a sumptuous binding. This is the “conceit” that governs the entire poem. “The Chemist Arranges His Social Calendar” is similarly structured. The speaker (the “chemist”) is talking about an ordinary social calendar—a small blank book in which appointments, meetings, and birthdays are noted on date-marked pages, usually for an entire year. We all know what the thing is, and by itself it is of no poetic interest. But here the speaker cannot discuss his “social calendar” without using words and imagery that are connected with his occupation as a chemist. The people whom he knows are “precipitates.” Each acquaintance thinks of himself as aqua regia (“royal water,” the acid which is a powerful solvent). He, on the other hand, can only think of them as “compounded salts” or ‘residues.” By referring to the social calendar as his “periodic table,” he clearly thinks of his social life as nothing more than a subdivision of his work in the laboratory. And if he should miss a date or appointment on his social calendar, he can only imagine it as an oxygen explosion. Both poems are about what the French call déformation professionnelle. This is the tendency of some persons to allow their work or their deepest interests to color all of their activities, discourse, and relationships. A doctor who can only discuss matters from a medical perspective suffers from déformation professionnelle, as does an actor who can only see things from the viewpoint of stagecraft, or a Wall Street financier who can only talk about investments and interest rates. These persons have lost a wider part of their humanity, and have shrunk, morally and intellectually, into stunted and inadequate human beings. My two poems are an attempt to depict déformation professionnelle in both a comic and a monitory manner. As comic poems, they point out the extravagance and silliness of taking one’s work or interests so seriously that they dominate all other aspects of life; and as monitory poems they warn against the psychological danger of doing so. But above all, the poems employ strange “conceits” that make a daring play for the reader’s attention: a birth certificate is a expensively bound first edition; and a social calendar is a reflection of chemical reactions. I hope that these two examples clarify what I have said previously about the conceit as a poetic device. One last point: a conceit is the product of artifice. It is a made-up thing, brought into existence by human ingenuity and invention. In a real sense it is unnatural, but at bottom every effective metaphor is unnatural. It isn’t something that you are going to find in nature, or in the conventions of daily conversation, or in logical argument. That is the conceit’s lure, as well as its strength. . . Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide. He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.