Someone Wrote You a Letter

Joseph Campana
February 22, 2012
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You know you should write but you don’t.

I don’t. Let’s be clear: I’ve neglected my blog for weeks now, though I love it. And it took three weeks to send email notes to some people I met at a conference and wanted to deepen the acquaintance. I’ve had two poems I’ve wanted to write for months. Sometimes the time isn’t right, but how much deeper into the no-longer-new new year will I push evne the attempt to compose those poems? In spite of a few almost-insomniac utterances, I haven’t felt like a poet lately.

And why do I keep choosing the petty stresses of my pampered life, the battles that should not be fought and can never be won, keep me from writing–a poem, a blog, a postcard, a letter. Sometimes anything will do.

So I was saved by a friend who sent me a card in the mail.


Amanda tells me, “I’m on a hiatus from electronic communication right now because I cannot be trusted.” You and me both Amanda. The letter is the treasure but the bonus is the image of Edwart Collyer’s Still Life: A Letter Rack (1692), which is held in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Motor City, where Amanda used to live and which I have never visited.

If I see Amanda now, in San Francisco, many pleasures will be available to me but not Edwart Collyer’s fascinating objects strapped to a letter rack. A letter rack? No one sent letters from my house when I was growing up, so we didn’t have a letter rack. Are they still in use? The orange straps seem so strict but also comforting, held in place by tacks or rivets. In the straps, a field punctuated by orange–wax on the back of the letter, an orange comb, a copper pendant (or coin?) hanging from a silver tack, another orange seal, and what looks like an orange crayon or chalk or stick of wax for sealing letters.

I look closely at the details–a second comb, white with teeth closer together on one side than the other–and I feel calmer. Some London paper folded up and a feather or quill and a recorder or some instrument that makes me think of a recorder. And I wonder why, for the last two weeks, I was so distracted with my students. I’m trying to teach them poetic form, whatever that is. Today was better: I was really there and until I felt that, I didn’t realize I was not there weeks before. What I perceived to be their distraction was also mine. I know there are good and pleasing forms of distraction, restorative ones, but mostly we don’t write because we cannot muster the concentration to do so. The mind is either too empty or too full.

I am grateful for the stark negative space around the objects in Collyer’s Still Life, even if it is a dark brown I cannot quite name. If the world were so small that it could fit on a letter rack, and all things could be seen as both discrete and overlapping, I would sit down and write my poems, and a letter to my friend, who is waiting for me not in Leyden, perhaps where Edwart Collyer waited for his letters, but in San Francisco, where she might soon be opening a letter from me.

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