I was at Moe’s Books in Berkeley looking for material on seventeenth-century shape poems with my not-yet-two-year-old daughter when a wizened man with mutton chops spotted me reshelving the books she was piling in the corner.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
I quickly learned that he’d spent his entire scholarly life immersed in the study of shape poems. Moe’s must be rich with encounters like this; it’s a four-story bookstore just three blocks from the University of California, Berkeley campus.
He told me about a contemporaneous vogue for something called emblem books. Perhaps the best known emblem book is Hans Holbein the Younger’s beautifully decorated The Dance of Death, in which woodcuts of various scenes and settings depict a skeleton reminding us of time’s wicked work on our health and aspirations. Beneath each woodcut is an epigram in verse. The best-known English practitioners of emblem books, Francis Quarles and George Wither, are hardly known at all, possibly because it’s hard to anthologize poems that are incomplete without an accompanying picture.
One of the themes that seems to be strong in all emblem books is secrecy. The emblems are rarely straightforward and often look more like Masonic devices than illustrations. With that in mind, I decided to try my hand at an emblem poem, drawing from my own experiences.
For the past few years, leading up to the birth of my daughter, I have spent five mornings out of the week standing in a small walk-in freezer, unloading and organizing food products. Before that, I was a fishmonger in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve often stopped to muse, as I unload packages of frozen Pacific cod and salmon pieces, on the sad tomb these fish have arrived at after their monumental struggle against the open ocean. In a way, it also helps cast my new role as a parent, no longer at loose in the northern wilds among freshly caught whole fish, but in the quiet domesticity of an environmentally controlled storehouse with processed blocks of bland, solid-colored cubes of once wild animals.
I take solace in the discovery that my daughter appears to be at least as feral as anything stalking through the Columbia Gorge.
Jason Novak works at a grocery store in Berkeley, California, and changes diapers in his spare time.