[Nightwood Editions; 2023]
The title of Nick Thran’s engaging book, If It Gets Quiet Later On, I Will Make a Display, nakedly lays out the book’s central metaphor—the bookstore display where seemingly unrelated titles share a small common space, grouped around some larger theme. Think of a table, for instance, where Homer’s Odyssey stands next to a journalistic account of the Arctic ice melt, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, and a children’s picture book about narwhals. The theme? Something vaguely associated with seas and oceans, of course. Similarly, If It Gets Quiet Later On is its own tabletop display, a grouping of poems, short stories, and essays connected (mostly) by Thran’s life as a writer, reader, and bookseller.
Thran has worked at bookstores in Toronto and Fredericton, Canada, over the years, and the pieces included in this collection give the reader a peek into the world of the small local bookshop: the “Walden Pond quiet” that envelops the store on Sundays, the tingle of satisfaction from helping customers with requests for niche literature, wages comprised partly of books (free advanced reading copies), and the odd assortment of bookish co-workers. But Thran is not just a bookseller, he’s a poet, the author of three poetry collections, and a winner of Ontario’s Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Thus, If It Gets Quiet Later On allows readers to look in on the life of a literatus committed not only to writing, but to writing well. As Thran recounts, “I had done an undergraduate degree in English. I had taken poetry workshops. I’d been sent to the mountains to write.” The mountains here are those surrounding the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, where Thran spent a month honing his poetic craft.
It’s no surprise, then, that the poetry in this amiable collection shines. Thran’s poems belong to that vast school of free verse that hews closely to natural speech and relies on perfectly placed line breaks to propel the reader forward. Reading the five poems in this book brings to mind the work of Li-Young Lee and Robert Hayden, among others. In short, Thran is a fine poet. From a poem titled “Small Talk”:
Might have taken a snow day, but I like
opening the bookstore. Even those heavy-legged
steps there. Order a takeaway coffee extra hot,
so after I shovel the sidewalk, put out the OPEN sign,
the cup will still be warm. Flick on the switches
for five afternoon hours of indoor light
in which I see nine customers
and sell four greeting cards, one collection
of personal essays, one YA novel, one self-
help book about getting rid of the habits
“that minimize the self.”
The book is divided into three sections (I, II, and III), with poems, essays, and short stories scattered throughout each. Thran could have devoted one section to poems, one to essays, and one to short stories, but chose not to, instead making sure each section included a little bit of everything. Again, think of the bookstore display table with its jumble of elements. Had the six short stories been grouped together, they could have been titled “Strange Daydreams of a Bookstore Clerk.” Their brevity and sharp endings occasionally give them an unfinished quality, as if they are hallucinations, but to varying degrees they’re all absorbing to read and to watch unfold. Thran uses the short story format to say more than he could in his poems, to more expansively—and suspensefully—create a sense of unease, uncertainty, and even dread. The stories consequently have a much darker hue than the poetry. For example, the story “Epilogue Books” centers on a Halifax bookstore, part of a global chain, trying to cope with an unspecified pandemic: Staffers carry weapons and are expected to operate a “quick-dry sanitization drone” over the aisles, the attached café is closed and cordoned off with barbed wire, and megaphones are used to communicate with customers from a safe distance. That’s the setup, and the story only gets darker, much darker, from there. Disaster or violence loom in other stories as well, and one titled “Gaffer and the Morning Star” is especially unnerving.
This slender volume includes six essays, three of which bear the title “If It Gets Quiet Later On, I Will Make a Display.” These three essays, which are distinct but all revolve around Thran’s work in bookstores, are written with a gentle earnestness and adeptly get to the heart of the local bookstore’s essential role in nurturing communities of readers and writers. In Thran’s particular case, they reveal his journey from overworked bellhop and aspiring writer to bookseller, published poet, and admirer of the artistry of the well-made display table. Here is Thran’s summation of the role of one bookstore where he worked, Book City Bloor West Village (Toronto), in satisfying his artistic longings:
Each evening I’d be paired with one of my colleagues. Because the evenings were slow, we would often speak to one another at length about our interests, passion projects, side hustles. To borrow a quote from Thoreau, “an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me” began to emerge. My colleagues and I talked—not, as I would with my fellow bellhops, about the misdeeds, attitudes and strange requests of our ultra-rich clientele, but about the books we were reading, and about the odd angles from which the bookstore allowed us to approach other, often more nebulous goals. A bookstore, but a kind of workshop too. While I’ve looked for and found such magic in places like concert halls, poetry readings, galleries—it has never been as clearly laid out for me as it was at Book City Bloor West Village.
Of the remaining essays, one in particular deserves praise: “Goodbye, Great Wall.” As a tribute to the late Canadian poet Patrick Lane (1939–2019), the essay achieves a refreshing frankness and tenderness. The essay opens with Lane arriving late on the first day of a poetry workshop that Thran is attending:
[O]n that first day of class he wants to talk about what it’s like to see your poems in print, in your very first published collection. He leafs through the volume in front of him as though it were his own debut. He’s making sure all the poems are there. He grazes for the first of the typos, which he says one invariably finds. He mimics the deep sigh that follows the first flip through. “Then,” he says, in concert with his enactment, “you open the book at random, press your face to the pages, and sniff the length of the spine. And then,” he says, closing the book and resting his head on the table, speaking sideways out to the room, “you weep. Because it’s all you fucking have.”
The essay moves on to discuss Lane’s personal struggles as well as one possible wellspring of his output, which Thran, after a clever bit of literary sleuthing, identifies as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, via the interpretations of Sylvia Plath and William Carlos Williams, who, in turn, may have been influenced by W. H. Auden’s take on the artist. The exact logic is immaterial; rather, it is Thran’s ability to make connections between the various artists—another display table, of sorts—that stands out. And in the middle of the essay stands a section in which Lane’s poem “The Great Wall” is compared with and contrasted to Franz Kafka’s story “The Great Wall of China.” Kafka’s story, Thran notes, deals with a supervising laborer overseeing construction of a section of the wall, while Lane’s poem focuses on a laborer tasked with repairing and maintaining the wall. Kafka’s tale has been cited as a “kind of parable” for the “modernist project in literature,” Thran asserts, though Lane’s poem is “pre-modernist” in how it relates to “broader literary concepts of piecemeal construction and fragment.” If you think it’s heady stuff, it is.
Overall, Thran’s book adeptly displays the concerns and preoccupations not only of booksellers, but of those who dwell in the world of literature, whether as readers or writers.
Rex Bowman is a writer and translator and nonfiction reviewer for Great Lakes Review. His work has appeared in various journals, including The Smart Set, Literary Heist, Modern Literature, and Parhelion. He is the author or co-author of several books, most recently Almost Hemingway: The Life and Adventures of Negley Farson, Foreign Correspondent. He lives in Michigan.
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