The Well-Read Bookshelf: Randall Jarrell in a Poetry Anthology

 I was looking for the Modern Poetry anthology because I wanted to reread “Next Day,” my favorite poem by Randall Jarrell. It takes the form of a middle-aged woman’s monologue on her new feeling of invisibility.

Randall Jarrell

“Damn it, I saw the book just the other day,” I said as I shone a flashlight on the back shelf of the double-shelved anthologies

This anthology, whether the Norton, the Oxford, or other, was missing .  We have acquired many anthologies over the years. and all the rest are on this shelf:  two different editions of The Oxford Book of English Verse, The Oxford Book of American Verse, an anthology of poetry edited by Garrison Keillor, an anthology of women’s diary excerpts, an anthology of science fiction, a Penguin anthology of Russian short stories, a Penguin anthology of French poetry, a Library of America anthology of Christmas Stories, The Best American Short Stories of the Twentieth Century, edited by John Updike, an anthology of American essays, edited by Philip Lopate, an anthology of American crime classic short stories, and more.

Why is the book you want the only book you can’t find?

How much easier to find things when we had only one bookcase! I was 19 when I bought my first bookcase:  my boyfriend and I lugged the awkwardly oversized box a mile from downtown to our apartment, sitting down frequently on the sidewalk to rest. Once home we had to assemble it, not without some difficulty and borrowing of tools. The bookcase was large enough to hold my small collection of classics and 19th-century literature until both reading and book-buying expanded to include other centuries and I needed more shelves.

For a couple of decades we had bricks-and-boards shelves, which actually looked nicer than the particle-board bookcases with which we replaced them,  But that first bookcase – now shabby and the worse for wear – has lived in many places and is still useful.

Eureka!  Did you think I forgot about Randall Jarrell? I found the Modern Poetry anthology on the floor of the bedroom, in case I needed poetry at night and happened to be sitting on the floor, I suppose. Never underestimate the power of an anthology. Though in this case, I swear it would be easier to memorize all of Randall Jarrell’s poetry than try to find an anthology on our shelves!  So if you see me muttering to myself as I walk down the street, I’m probably reciting “Next Day.”
“Next Day”

Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All,
I take a box
And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens.
The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical
Food-gathering flocks
Are selves I overlook. Wisdom, said William James,

Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise
If that is wisdom.
Yet somehow, as I buy All from these shelves
And the boy takes it to my station wagon,
What I’ve become
Troubles me even if I shut my eyes.

When I was young and miserable and pretty
And poor, I’d wish
What all girls wish: to have a husband,
A house and children. Now that I’m old, my wish
Is womanish:
That the boy putting groceries in my car

See me. It bewilders me he doesn’t see me.
For so many years
I was good enough to eat: the world looked at me
And its mouth watered. How often they have undressed me,
The eyes of strangers!
And, holding their flesh within my flesh, their vile

Imaginings within my imagining,
I too have taken
The chance of life. Now the boy pats my dog
And we start home. Now I am good.
The last mistaken,
Ecstatic, accidental bliss, the blind

Happiness that, bursting, leaves upon the palm
Some soap and water—
It was so long ago, back in some Gay
Twenties, Nineties, I don’t know . . . Today I miss
My lovely daughter
Away at school, my sons away at school,

My husband away at work—I wish for them.
The dog, the maid,
And I go through the sure unvarying days
At home in them. As I look at my life,
I am afraid
Only that it will change, as I am changing:

I am afraid, this morning, of my face.
It looks at me
From the rear-view mirror, with the eyes I hate,
The smile I hate. Its plain, lined look
Of gray discovery
Repeats to me: “You’re old.” That’s all, I’m old.

And yet I’m afraid, as I was at the funeral
I went to yesterday.
My friend’s cold made-up face, granite among its flowers,
Her undressed, operated-on, dressed body
Were my face and body.
As I think of her and I hear her telling me

How young I seem; I am exceptional;
I think of all I have.
But really no one is exceptional,
No one has anything, I’m anybody,
I stand beside my grave
Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.

4 thoughts on “The Well-Read Bookshelf: Randall Jarrell in a Poetry Anthology”

  1. It is a sad poem. And I don’t deny that in the last 15-20 years when I realize some man I’m talking to is sizing me up and
    deciding I “won’t do” because I’m too old, or starts maybe to flirt and then holds back because he is just not attracted to
    this aging whatever — I do feel bad. But why should I? I don’t look at him simply as a possible mate and since the male looking at me is as old as I, I could reject him on grounds he does not look like Tom Hiddleston. But I don’t. My feeling is the narrator is just as unhappy that she is left out; she has been given no job beyond mother and wife and now that they don’t need her, she is stuck bringing home groceries to an empty house. She has not made a meaning or occupation for herself beyond what was originally rooted in the sexual-social is her real problem not that the grocery clerk is not attracted.

    I love Randall Jarrell’s poems and prose. I keep my anthologies together in different places depending on what kind they are.

    1. How young I seem; I am exceptional;
      I think of all I have.
      But really no one is exceptional,
      No one has anything, I’m anybody,

      The woman’s ironic, despondent voice as she articulates her similarity with other women of her age is poignant – and precedes Second Wave feminist realization.. And I love the setting, the grocery store, where she loiters in the detergent aisle of meaninglessness. How difficutlt to be drawn out of that sense of individuality, even for a minute!

  2. What a wonderful poem. I think I need an Anthology of Randall Jarrell poems to misplaced among my other books.

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