"A room without books is like a body without a soul."

(Joseph O’Brien, aka The Wisconsin Poet, contributes the second entry to Godsbody’s Writers’ Rooms series.)

I’ve not been able to track down exactly where Cicero might have said that, but it is attributed to him – although of course, in his day, a shelf of books looked more like Amazonian rolls of toilet paper in clay canisters shelved and stacked on their side in the broom closet next to the vomitorium across from the pederast’s rec room….at any rate, quietly stowed away from the majority of Roman intrigue.

I suppose THAT’s how Cicero got so much writing/speaking done, in the first place. And shouldn’t every writer’s office be a quiet and separate peace from the world?

Still, I think Rome’s greatest producer of sound-bites – or the anonymous medieval monk-wonk who probably put these words in his mouth – has a point. A good reader, as my father once told me, makes a good writer. If you write, you must have a heap of books to help you to the words.

I think it behooves a writer to surround himself with the words that will most enliven – and to do so in close quarters. My wife thinks I’m crazy. She likes open, airy, sunny spacious rooms. I like cramped cell-like boxes with niches, nooks, crannies (I’d even love someday to install a priest hole!) But to defend my tastes, if such is possible, there must be that bit of the monk-wonk in every writer that keeps his distractions to a minimum – well, at least outside the hundreds of volumes which on any given writing day will lure him away from a deadline to indulge the fictions of his mind….

(As ever, click on pics to enlarge – Ed.)

My writing for bread and breed is done mostly here.

And here my speaking for Catholic Radio International is mostly done.

Let me put it this way: it is not accidental that I work in stanzas, that stanza is the Italian word for room, and I that do most of my writing within a small unclean, ill-lit (pace, Papa) stanza of a million words.

Nor is it accidental that poem writing seems to attract an inordinate number of Catholics. (Even Robert Lowell practiced it for a while to claim a tradition richer than the Mayflower Pilgrims.) Every poetaster worth his saltpeter, whether he knows it or not, takes the tabernacle as the arch-model of composition: Christ in a box – eternity in a stanza.

The sole window in my box looks out into my gravel and dirt driveway (the last snow melted from it April 12), my woodshed (now empty), and a case of jerry rigged stairs leading to the main porch entrance of the house (no broken necks, yet). Not the stuff of dreams, for sure, but then, I usually do all my more important, non-income-related writing at night anyway – the stuff that really counts because it never does. With lights low or off altogether, my view of Parnassus is usually lit not by the great vistas of Wisconsin outdoors but by the narrow candy-blue gaze of my computer screen.

Of all the unbound objects in my room, my hardwood chair is the most prized. I prize it as much as Queequeg did his idols. As the Israelites did their golden calf. As any pope, king or shoeshine does his cathedra. It is a strong piece of furniture, impossible to fall asleep in and it has endured the roughest tanglings and wranglings with meters, paragraphs, modifiers or parallel structure the muses ever dealt a man….

As for the room’s arrangement, it has been forced through necessity – the bookcase on the left of my desk is awaiting a more permanent placement once the rest of my house gets built by the man known in these pages as the Wisconsin Carpenter. Thus the compulsive symmetry of desk and window is completely accidental. By no means should one infer an ordered mind thereby.

Flanking (left and right respectively) desk and chair, the ship clock and pipe rack remind me to make time for tobacco – and the bottle of hooch tucked in the desktop bookshelf I mention without comment… because I am not currently under its influence. Of course, if you’ll give me a second…

As I sit at my desk, surrounded by books, I have a wonderful wooden statuette of St. Joseph peering back, ready to go to work, a carpenter’s square cradled in one hand and a piece of raw lumber held up by the other. (I can’t have lares; but I can certainly have a patron.) Behind me are more books and behind those books are even more books.

I believe in writing this way because (and here I put a plug in for one of the greatest essays on writing ever written) as T.S. Eliot said, “What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career. What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” (Tradition and Individual Talent). I have Homer, Ovid, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wallace Stevens, Eliot himself, Ezra Pound, and most recently Robert Graves (gratiae, Matthew!) and other literati looking over my shoulder at all times.

The conversation often takes place, and it often goes something like this…
“O, naught will the definite article’s pow’r,
Lest Adam forc’d by Satan speak it thus,” says Milton with grave countenance.

“Thou Jack, thou knave, thou very porcubine’s quill,
As definite speaks best so best it will!,” chuckles Shakespeare.

“The indefinite article sings its huzzahs
Beside the probable pear
The indefinite article sings its hoozahs
Beside the oracular pear,
The indefinite article is the only fiction
The pear, the fiction’s cast of mind
The pear and the definite article are one,” insists the sober Wallace Stevens

“I do not hope to turn
I do not hope to turn again
I do not hope to turn this word
Etherized as an etymologist in a London public house
Unsure of what to do with a definite article,” Eliot testily retorts.

And so on…

For some the pressure might seem too great – how does he get a lick of writing done with all those voices micromanaging his use of something as simple as an article? Because the tradition is stamped with an individuality – (if not a talent). And that’s where the room helps. These books represent my own assortments of subject matter; my chaos of indices; my organized entropy; my unholy choir of Dis in holy compact with humility; my concordance of immortal voices hushing me to say something sensible.

Yes, tradition pushes, but I gently push back….

Indeed, at the end of the writing day, I like to push chair back from desk – it scrapes across the tiles in clamorous annunciation – push my hat back, push a cigarette in my face and push a shot of whisky down my gullet. That done, I look around at my books and say farewell for now as I prepare to reemerge from the cave, into the full light of the quotidian, its steady rays warming me to family life and fatherhood.

But is it not the quotidian we live to, if not for? The room has books, the body has soul, and so I am a man content to move in the world – if not with the world – my head full of words given room to grow.
“For it is commonly said: completed labors are pleasant.” Cicero also said that. At least I read that he had….

Post script:

Here is a poem I wrote on the occasion of the office’s inauguration

The Open Cave: An Inaugural

The books in my library press their golden titles to early morning sunlight.
If I choose my steps carefully as I walk along the abridged space
From one shelved end to the other of this most difficult case at hand,
My fingers moving down up down up, east to west to south to north,
I can find the truth indexed in words, diurnal synopsis of wisdom’s content.

Although intertextually bound to this body of literature, eastern sunlight
Will always go unrecorded beyond this western shelf of booked space.
To compensate, the wind’s drama replays itself in tall weeds like hands
That grow outside my window, shades wriggling in a breeze from the north,
Reaching like skeletal ghosts, shivering down the varied spines, content

To serve as reality’s appendix inscribed by sharp stylus of slanted sunlight.
The room is small by most standard vertebrae; for my books it is space
Enough altogether to open up in, and for me to read their words, a slow hand
Moving across codex mosaics, beginning my trek in the frigid margins of north-
Pole whiteness. But the paper soon crisps into its proper tropical content,

Riveted with paragraphs patterning out like clouds, reading into sunlight
As each turned page snakes around and shapes up into an idea. The space
Of knowledge is a sentence. But the good man knows he is dealt a bad hand
By equally serpentine statements: Fools have considered good and evil north
Of their interests ever since, lengthening the winters of their discontent.

As a result, we are forever seeking to hide in our underground sunlight.
So, I return to this cave. I must; but mindful to see the infinite space
A squat 90 square feet of library can provide. And to dare to take in hand
One of these books is to blind the ignorant “I” between the lines, unearth
A shadow,
make an assent in black and white,
and pull up to a table of content.


  1. Cubeland Mystic says

    Was that an Irish flag in the picture?

  2. Matthew Lickona says

    Well, with a name like O’Brien, I’ll wager it wasn’t an English flag.

  3. Cubeland Mystic says

    Just wanted to make sure he wasn’t a collaborator.

  4. Could we NOT use the term Priest Hole for a few years?

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