26 October 2023

How Grolier Poetry writes 'Harvard Square'

There was no ‘Harvard’ in Cambridge, Massachusetts before September 8, 1636. Indeed, at that time, there was no Cambridge either, at least not in the state of Massachusetts. Apparently it was settled as New Towne in 1630 by the Massachusetts Bay Company but was organised as a town not only in name six years later when it was picked as the site of Harvard College. This town was renamed Cambridge two years later.

So much has happened in the almost four hundred years that have passed since then. A moment can transform, in fact. And so, one should not be surprised to return to any place, Cambridge included, say thirty years after spending a few years there, and find the landscape unrecognizable.  

Memory demands that we look for things that were so much of the everyday in that other time. We look for corner shops, bakeries, book shops, the shapes of buildings and even park benches. Some have gone, as the Beatles’ song ‘In my life’ goes, and some remain.

Harvard Square is reputed to be the most vibrant place in North America in terms of street artists. Maybe I arrived at the wrong time of the year or perhaps the wrong day of the week and the wrong time, but I didn’t see any solo artist with a guitar who perhaps entertained the dream that one day, just like it happened to Tracy Chapman, fame and fortune would arrive. No jugglers, no clowns and no hustlers with a deck of cards. 

The Au Bon Pain bakery-cafe outlet had shut down in January 2019, not too long after Cream Cafe, Chipotle, Tealuze, Urban Outfitters and Sweet Bakery had left what the relevant proprietors had turned into landmark locations in Harvard Square. Pavement Coffeehouse stands in its place. There are lots of tables outside and some of them have chess squares embedded. There are still chess players. There are pigeons too.  And there are things that have been missed or completely forgotten.

I went looking for bookstores, for there were many back in the day. Splendid places they were for one never felt the time pass. Fancy ones and places that sold used books. Grand ones and quaint shops that seemed to have been taken from fairytales. Many had closed down years ago, I found out.

I wondered if the Harvard Book Store was also gone. It was there, but more importantly I noticed a sign directing the random passerby to Grolier Poetry. A bookstore dedicated to poetry. How could I have missed that, I asked myself.

So I walked in. So I browsed. I found a poet who has been walking all over my mind the past few days. It so happened that the translator is also a poet I had read and written about.  So I flipped through the pages of ‘If I were another,’ by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Fady Joudah. And, as often happens, a random page yielded words that spoke to all the thoughts I alluded to above. Here’s the relevant verse from ‘The “Red Indians’” penultimate speech to the white man’:

There are dead who sleep in rooms you will build
there are dead who visit their past in places you demolish
there are dead who pass over bridges you will construct
there are dead who illuminate the night of butterflies, dead
who come by dawn to drink their tea with you, as peaceful
as your rifles left them, so leave, you guests of the place,
some vacant seats for your hosts…they will read you
the terms of peace…with the dead!

These are, after all, times of places being demolished and people being evicted so their homes can be seized. Much like the ‘Red Indians’ Darwish speaks about. Yes, he writes of one thing but speaks of and to many other things.

Grolier Poetry didn’t exist back in 1630. Adrian Gambit and Gordon Cairnie set it up in 1927 and it was only in 1976 that Louisa Solano turned it into a bookstore that only stocked poetry. Apparently she had first stepped into Grolier at 15 and had later helped out Gordon who had paid her with tea and cookies. When he died in 1973, according to Louisa, ‘ten of his customers got together, got a bank loan for me, and I got this store.’

Louisa Solano passed on April 20, 2022. One day, someone who once stepped into that bookstore will visit Harvard Square and find that Grolier Poetry does not exist any more. There may come a day when no one remembers the name Louisa Solano. She once said, in an interview, that ‘poetry is the texture of life and language, and if you don’t have it on an actual page in front of you, you are losing your language.’

Maybe we’ll not have ‘pages’ either, but she’s right about poetry being the texture of life and language. And that’s why walking around Harvard Square was like reading an old poem — there are always layers of meaning that one has missed and always one is surprised by the layers that seem to have got added or have been added.

After all, one might say that Darwish wrote that poem for it to be read today in a world to wish he continues to gift the world life, love and language even though he’s passed to a place where, hopefully, he’s become what he wanted as he wrote in 2000 (‘Mural’).  

There’s Harvard. Cambridge. Chess tables and a cafe. Roads that change their clothes from time to time. There’s a bookstore called Grolier Poetry. It’s on Plympton Street, Cambridge. It’s still there. There is a name that lingers. Louisa Solano.

There will always be poets writing the textures of life and language offering a random visitor a Harvard Square that’s never existed before. It will disappear in a moment and yet be collapsible to dimensions small enough to be carried far away from Cambridge, Massachusetts and the United States of America.

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is the 253rd article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below]



Other articles in this series: 

Let us write beautiful poetry

Following children and their smiles

Let's plant words in cracks and craters

Re-weaving lives and love

When the earth closes upon us...

Let us now march to the battleground of words

The most pernicious human shield

Who bombed Frankfurter Buchmesse

The truly besieged 

Love's austere and lonely offices

The mysteriously enjoined in the middle of nowhere

Serendipity now!

Reflections on the unimaginable 

Jackson Anthony is a book and will be read 

A village called Narberth Bookshop

Gateway drugs to A-B-C

'Irvin' and other one-word poems

Earth pieces Kerala and Sri Lanka

Obligation as bomb and ocean

In the land of insomnial poets

In and out of shadows

Over to Eve

When you don't need an invitation, it's home

When the Canadian House of Commons applauded a Nazi...

Touching the touch-me-nots

The importance of not skipping steps

No free passes to the Land of Integrity

Hector Kobbekaduwa is not a building, statue, street or stamp

Rajagala and the Parable of the Panner

Let's show love to Starbucks employees!

You've got mail?

Octavio Paz and Arthur C Clarke in the stratosphere 

Enduring solidarities 

Coco 'Quotes' Gauff!

9/11 and the calm metal instrument of Salvador Allende's voice 

What a memory-keeper foregoes 

Whitman, Neruda and things that wait in all things

Thilina Kaluthotage's eyes keep watch

Those made of love will fly

Profit: the peragamankaru of major wars

Helplessness and innocence

The parameters of entirety

In loving memory of Carrie Lee (1956-2020)

Mobsters on and off the screen

Transfixing and freeing dawns

We're here because we're here because we're here

Life signatures

Sha'Carri Richardson versus and with Sha'Carri Richardson  

A canvas for a mind-brush

Sybil Wettasinghe's shoes

Love is...

A stroll with Pragg and Arjun along a boulevard in Baku

Meditation on tree-art

Daya Sahabandu ran out of partners but must have smiled to the end

Gentle intrusions 

Sleeping well

The unleashing of inspiration

Write, for Pete's sake

Autumn Leaves Safeness

 Sapan and voices that erase borders

Problem elephants and problem humans

Songs from the vaekanda

The 'inhuman' elephant in a human zoo

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road