I could have guessed the tiny Green Lake Library in City Hall wouldn’t have any Billy Collins books. I asked Janice Boggs, the librarian, to request a few from another branch, then headed out to Legacy House, since Gordon Leimbach had a book collection to rival the library.
“Billy Collins, you say?” he asked. “I know I have a few of his collections, over there on the middle shelf of the barrister—just go ahead and lift the knob. The whole glass front panel swings out and tucks right back into the shelf. See anything there?”
Through the glass fronts of the antique bookcase, I could see the whole thing was dedicated to poetry. Langston Hughes and John Keats. Calvin Miller. Robert Frost. Dickinson and Whitman and Donne. I saw a few books by Collins, took one off the shelf, then closed the barrister behind me and sat down on Gordon’s couch. He sat in his rocker and started to pack his pipe.
“Gordon, why do you keep so many books around if you can’t see the pages anymore?”
“They’re just good company,” he said simply. “Read something aloud, would you?”
I chose a poem called “The First Dream,” which ended with a woman puzzling over her original experience of the phenomenon. I could hear my voice listing with her as I read:
except that the curve of her young shoulders
and the tilt of her downcast head
would make her appear to be terribly alone,
and if you were there to notice this,
you might have gone down as the first person
to ever fall in love with the sadness of another.
“Brilliant,” said Gordon, pipe now between his teeth, dark glasses on, looking for all the world like some jazz hepcat. “Mmm. Brilliant. Yes?”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“Makes me think of the week on August Arms all about dreams. Back in, oh, maybe January or February, remember?”
“I do.” It had been a fascinating week in which I had learned that the faces we see in dreams are all ones we have seen in real life and that those who have gone blind after birth can still dream in images. Gordon had told me then that his late wife Mavis was the one face that had never faded from his memory after he’d lost his sight.
But Gordon was thinking of a different episode. “René Descartes’s dream argument,” he said. “I can’t remember if we discussed it.”
“Briefly,” I said. “I’m not much of a philosopher.”
Gordon smiled. “I just find think it’s fascinating, the way people can sort these massive existential topics into numbered statements. One, if I have experiences in waking life similar to the ones I have in dream life, and two, there is nothing to help me distinguish between the two, then three, it is possible I am dreaming now.”
“Oh, that,” I said, his words prompting a distant recollection. “I sort of remember that episode. I guess I never understood why he thought it was so important to go there—you know, to take it that far.”
“Well,” said Gordon, now in his professorial element, “he was trying to establish doubt. Universal doubt. You know his famous statement, ‘I think; therefore, I am’?”
“It was all en route to arriving at that point, which we call the Cogito. If you strip things down and start with the Cogito, then your philosophy—however you re-build it—is not connected to tradition.”
“But is that a good thing?” I asked, doubtfully. “I’m not so sure.”
Gordon grinned with pride. “And you say you’re not a philosopher.”