While in Arklow recently, I picked up a copy of Delmore Schwartz's Selected Poems: Summer Knowledge in a charity shop. This in itself was a surprise, as Schwartz would be very obscure by Irish standards and was quite out of place amidst the Roddy Doyles and Cecelia Aherns. But when I got it home I found in the back a postcard and a letter, written by different hands, which are both a fascinating glimpse into a life and a reminder of the little losses that occur to us as we shuffle along this mortal coil. I've changed the names and a few details to preserve the anonymity of the people in question.
First, the postcard. On the front is a picture of the Flatiron Building in New York, and a watermark on the back dates it to 1987. The text reads as follows:
[Written across the top:] This card is belated by about three months. Please excuse.[Main text:] Hi Alan, How are things in Chicago? Sorry for not getting in touch sooner but we were very busy getting settled in initially so I'm really only starting to write to people now. Everything is going great here in NY - my social life is really just starting to take off right now, I was at a great party last Friday night with people who are working with me and got pee-eyed [sic] - twas a good laugh all the same. I have about three different jobs at the moment - two part-time and one full-time. I'll be in touch soon.
The message isn't signed, but the writer's name and address are written on the top of the card. Which is just as well, because stamped underneath the recipient's address is: Returned to Sender: Moved - Not Forwardable.
The letter is handwritten in pencil on a small sheet of cheap white paper which looks like it was pulled out of a notebook of some kind. It has no envelope, and is marked with small brown stains and smudges which resemble burn marks, as if it was held too close to a candle. Neither the recipient nor the writer are identified. The full text is as follows (I've stuck as closely as possible to the original style of writing):
Sitting down, Pink Floyd playing, looking through slides, sorting the damn things out, it brings it all back, boy did we have some good times, [illegible word], the buildings of Bogota, high ideals [?], the truck, Cartegena, Armero - I can hardly look at these - the Palacio, Gerardo, La Candelaria, the trips with Murphy & Co, Sonny, Frederico, I even came across [illegible word], La Universidad, [illegible word; possibly Bermuda]. Remember it all for five minutes, don't know if it will ever be the same again - we were a good pair. Go back now to high living, dollars and the unfulfilled American dream, enjoy it.Nos Vamos Amigo [Written beneath and underlined]
Curiously, the book has the name of the postcard's recipient (who I've called Alan) written above the title page, which suggests that it belonged to him and was borrowed, or gifted, to the writer of the postcard (who I'll call Brendan). The letter is a mystery, as I don't know whether it was written to Alan or Brendan (or possibly was in the book already if Alan bought it second hand). The mention of Murphy & Co certainly suggests an Irish connection that would tie in with the writer of the postcard, but that's obviously pure speculation. What is clear is that she (my partner and I have little doubt that it was written by a woman) travelled to Colombia with the intended recipient of the letter and some others, and that he (?) has returned to the US. What is clear is that Brendan was in the US in the 1980s, and at some point returned to Ireland (but perhaps he didn't; perhaps the book returned with a visiting relative or friend). Perhaps he was on a student visa, or had emigrated. At this stage, it's 23 years since the postcard was sent, and more than likely the same length of time since the letter was written, so it's all well in the past now.
I had a moment's hesitation before writing this, as I wondered if I was violating the privacy of the people involved by publishing their correspondence. After some thought I decided that if you value your privacy, you shouldn't leave your correspondence in books that you bring to the charity shop. Before selling books, I always check them for old letters, photographs, and the like, for that very reason. Besides, I feel that I have changed the details enough (without changing the sense) to protect the identities of those mentioned. Anyway, here's an apt song: