Saturday, 15 June 2013

The O-Filler

I was sure I had already posted this poem, but it seems not, so here it is.  I was a bit suspicious of the text I found online -- rightly so, as it turned out -- so I went downstairs on Friday into the paper periodicals crypt, and found the original issue of The Atlantic Monthly (needless to say, it's a great privilege and very convenient for a curious mind, to work in a university library).  I love looking at old periodicals: the adverts, typography and layouts in the pre-digital age can be truly appalling.  Standards and expectations have risen, not fallen, in the last 50 years. Though this poem is an exception.  It has been set in a box on a whole page within a border of text with filled-in Os.  Nice.

The O-Filler, by Alastair Reid

One noon in the library, I watched a man --
imagine! -- filling in O's, a little, rumpled
nobody of a man, who licked his stub of pencil
and leaned over every O with a loving care,
shading it neatly, exactly to its edges,
until the open pages
were pocked and dotted with solid O's, like villages
and capitals on a map. And yet, so peppered,
somehow the book looked lived in and complete.

That whole afternoon, as the light outside softened,
and the library groaned woodenly,
he worked and worked, his O-so-patient shading
descending like an eyelid over each open O
for page after page. Not once did he miss one,
or hover even a moment over an a,
or an e or a p or a g. Only the O's --
oodles of O's, O's multitudinous, O's manifold,
O's italic and roman.
And what light on his crumpled face when he discovered --
as I supposed -- odd words like zoo and ooze,
or -- joy! -- oolong and odontology!

Think now. In that limitless library,
all round the steep-shelved walls, bulging in their bindings,
books stood, waiting. Heaven knows how many
he had so far filled, but no matter, there still were
uncountable volumes of O-laden prose, and odes
with inflated capital O's (in the manner of Shelley),
O-bearing Bibles and biographies,
even whole sections devoted to O alone,
all his for the filling. Glory, glory, glory!
How lovely and open and endless the world must have seemed to him,
how utterly clear-cut! Think of it. A pencil
was all he needed. Life was one wide O.

Anyway, why in the end should O's not be closed
as eyes are? I envied him. After all,
sitting across from him, had I accomplished
anything as firm as he had, or as fruitful?
What could I show? a handful of scrawled lines,
an afternoon yawned and wondered away,
and a growing realization that in time
even my scribbled words would come
under his grubby thumb, and the blinds be drawn
on all my O's. And only this thought for comfort --
that when he comes to this poem, a proper joy
may amaze his wizened face, and, O, a pure pleasure
make that meticulous pencil quiver.

(Atlanric Monthly, February 1960)

Of course, we have a special re-education cellar for anyone caught O-filling our stock, or worse.  I was down in The Crypt a while ago looking for something in the Strand Magazine and discovered that someone had been busy, razoring out the Sherlock Holmes stories.  I know.  Flaying alive is too lenient.  You may be interested to know that the worst razorers of academic journal articles are Law students.  Figures...


Gavin McL said...

I don't think I've ever vandalised a library book but I once soaked one in red wine. The wine was in my hand luggage (purchased post security) The strap on my briefcase failed and plunged to the ground. The case was water proof and I found it contained a thin soup of red wine, broken glass - my papers for several days worth of meeting and the library books slowly marinating in the fine French wine.
I dried the book and papers over night on the heated floor of my hotel bathroom. It smelt bizarre in the morning and every time I opened the book I got a good waft of red wine. When I returned the book I had to pay full price for it. Our family does however harbour a serial book vandal. After my grandmother broke her hip my grandfather had to chose books for both of them. He worried that he would choose a book she had already read so when she finished one he would lightly circle the page number on page 19 on pencil (My grandmother was born in 1919) before he returned it. When ever he selected a book for her he would check page 19 I thought it was quite a clever idea but when the librarian found out - she spotted him checking the pages and he confessed she was rather upset so he changed to a tiny dot!

Mike C. said...


Thanks for that -- there are two whole short stories right there...


Margaret Shepherd said...

I love this poem--I read it back in the day, at age 14, and could NOT get my 8th grade teacher to accept it as a memorization project. I gather there has always been some controversy about its status as a serious poem. BTW I am now a calligrapher, and I fill in any blessed O I want to.

Mike C. said...


Thanks for commenting. Hard to believe that anyone could fail to see the seriousness behind the deceptive light-heartedness of this poem, especially in the country that gave us Robert Frost and Billy Collins...