Peter Carroll’s poems, Rodin’s hero, and an old and dicey part of town

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“Know Knew Books” … a funky Palo Alto landmark that keeps late hours.

The bookstore called “Know Knew Books” is something of a Palo Alto institution. Located at 415 California Avenue, it’s in the center the city’s “second downtown.” However, California Avenue was the equivalent of Main Street in the defunct town of Mayfield, which was swallowed into Palo Alto years ago. The story is much more interesting than I had known.  From the Palo Alto wiki:

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A familiar face…

The town of Mayfield, centered in what is now the California Avenue business district, predated Palo Alto by some 40 years, being established in 1855. …

Senator [Leland] Stanford, after he decided to turn his horse farm into a university, met with Mayfield leaders in 1886 to discuss his plans for the university. He told them that his university would need a nearby town for its needs, and Mayfield was the closest town. But, he added, he didn’t like the dozen saloons that had given Mayfield a somewhat unsavory reputation and suggested that they be closed.

The saloon owners won out, their establishments remained open, and Stanford went on to build his university and encourage the development of a new town, Palo Alto, north of Mayfield. Stanford thought so highly of Mayfield that he locked the gate from Escondido Road into Mayfield and kept it locked until 1913.

Symbolically and realistically cut off from Stanford, Mayfield suffered while its upstart neighbor, Palo Alto, prospered. When the Mayfield city officials finally outlawed the saloons in 1905, the town’s reputation improved. As Palo Alto and Mayfield started growing toward each other, talk began of annexation.

I didn’t know I lived in such a dangerous part of town, with such a dicey history.  But there are you are.  Who knew?

At any rate, if you duck into Know Knew Books’ doors after dinner (it’s usually open pretty late), you’re likely to pet a dog or two, sit on a well-worn couch, chat with the bearded, 60s aficiando proprietor, and hear, perhaps, a recording of the Broadway version of Hair.   “Know Knew Books” sells used books, regularly features fantastic sales, and usually has “going out of business” signs in its window (long story) – and sometimes it has poetry readings, too.

Am I imagining things?

Am I imagining things?

It did last night, when historian and poet Peter Neil Carroll read from his two collections of poetry, A Child Turns Back to Wave: Poetry of Lost Places (2012) and Riverborne: A Mississippi Requiem (2008).  I’d met him a few months ago at “A Company of Authors” – I chaired the panel he participated in, called “The Power of Poetry.”  In his poems, Peter explores “the idea of “place” as a state of mind. He won this year’s Prize Americana for Poetry from the Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture – I remember that part from the introduction I gave him.

It was a genial reading, well attended by a couple dozen people.  After his 45-minute reading, however, it was open mic night – so, not feeling well, and I stepped out into the cool air of a Palo Alto July and headed home, a few blocks away. During the reading, his face had haunted me.  I knew I’d seen him somewhere before even our meeting last April.  Then it clicked.  I’d seen him on the Stanford Quad.  Rodin’s Burghers of Calais.  Does he look like Jean d’Aire?  See what you think.  Oh well, it’s hard to see the resemblance in when he’s smiling, as he is in my Droid photo.  (And Mayfield is like Calais … and Leland Stanford is like Edward III…)

Meanwhile, here’s a poem from last year’s collection, which he read at the moment I pulled up a chair at the reading:


What else could they do in deep darkness
but study the stars, stitch light into stories?

The holy ones spurning food and sleep
step into trance to seek prophecy or luck.

The same lure brings saints and fools
to kneel at the rim, tie gifts to the wire—

herb pouches, bundles of sticks sewn
in purple string, feathered arrows.

A buffalo skull leans on a ring of stones.
Cloudless, blue simmering light pours

as if liquid.  The eyes fill with tears.
In time the wind shreds every prayer.

In stillness, the body locates its fear—
being turned, falling from the planet.

A hawk hangs, circling, wings dizzying.
I look down to see sun mirrored on a stone,

lift the red, iridescent jewel, warm in hand,
place it on a white rock—afraid to say why.

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