Sunday, February 17, 2013

An Altering Experience

Sales are slow everywhere so I gave myself over to the lure of art this weekend in hopes it would save me from the obsessive inner voice which tells me repeatedly that the bookseller gig is up. Though as I told my friend Mary on Friday, to hear me tell it it’s BEEN up for sixteen years, yet somehow I’m still here inspite of it!  At any rate, I headed for the basement yesterday morning with a small damaged book in hand – A Study of Poetry by Mathew Arnold who is perhaps best known for his hauntingly beautiful, but ultimately despairing poem Dover Beach which laments World War I.

I only remember the last stanza, so here goes:

Ah, love, let us be true to one another!

For the world which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams

So, various, so beautiful, so new

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

If THAT wouldn’t convince you to stick your head in the oven I certainly don’t know what would. And yet I chose my images for the book in an almost meditative state with those very words looping endlessly through my head. I’ve tried making an altered book many times, but every time I failed and gave up, anguished to the soul over my own shortcomings. But now that the Altered Book Group of Cleveland is coming to the book fair I so much wanted to make a small book as part of the door prize and now – a miracle! – I have. (lots of pictures below)

I think the fact that the book I chose to use was about poetry helped me a great deal. Almost right away I latched on to an  odd, random memory, part of which isn’t even mine. In November, 2003 Eric and I took a getaway trip to Hocking Hills in southern Ohio not far from Athens. If you asked me for a memory of it I would have told you about the charming cottage in the woods, the candlelight dinners and the spectacular jacuzzi. But from my viewpoint on the basement floor I saw the image of birch trees and immediately transported myself to southern Ohio in the dark of winter's night. Though Eric and I hiked several miles there one day and every night made the trip by flashlight from cottage to restaurant, I truly don’t recall seeing any birch trees. I also remembered standing at an echoing cave drunk with the beauty of a circle of young Mennonites singing Amazing Grace, a heavenly chorus of young voices calling out in the wilderness. So clear was this image that it took me several minutes to realize that it never happened. Well, not to me anyway. It’s my sister-in-law’s memory, not mine. Yet somehow the poem I wrote in response, in part, derived  from its imprint.

The other thing that came to me as I sat on the floor filtering through hundreds, if not a thousand, images, was a color, a persistent, deep, glowing purple. Ah, yes. THAT I knew. It was a reminder that there was a time when I seriously practiced meditation. Whenever my chattering mind – the Buddhists call it “monkey mind” – finally settled down I would slip into a heightened state of consciousness,  announced  always by an intense purple light burning behind my eyes. The color was so brilliant it seemed  like a purple flame. Endlessly it rushed forward, receded into a deep black void, and then exploded again in a burst of molten amethyst. To this day I associate the color purple with the stirrings of the soul. The purple page too sprang almost effortlessly to life.

I tell you all of this because it was such bliss to make this little book. You’d think I would want to keep it since there may never be another, and certainly not ever one that captures these precise two threads that connect me to my past. But I made it to go into the gift basket for the door prize and that still feels right to me. Not only is it a fitting memento of the 31st annual Antiquarian Book and Paper Show, but it feels good to pass on something made from so much joy.


Saturday Evening Post said...

Years ago, I heard Dover Beach performed as a song for orchestra and solo voice, by the Boston Symphony. The composer was Samuel Barber. The line which immediately grabbed me, and still does, was "Sophocles long ago heard it on the Agean".

tess said...

A symphony and a song! Imagine that. Funny, that though I remember the poem I knoe the first two lines or so and the last stanza, so Sophocles somehow escaped me! Thanks for sharing that.

Hilda said...

I'm glad you made the time to do this. I'm sure you will always be glad you did. It looks like it turned out very well.

tess said...

At least it turned out well enough and I did enjoy the process. I think we tend to value outcome over process which is crazy because process is the journey and it's the journey that's the teacher.

Hilda said...

Tess, we tend to value a good outcome probably because it tends to validate the process even though it shouldn't. The process brings us inner joy but with a good outcome comes verbal and possibly monetary praise. It would be wonderful if we did look to the process as the best value received.

tess said...

Yes, that's it exactly. That's why I need to do this stuff more often. I work too much and when I'm not working I'm thinking about working.

Sarah Faragher said...

Love your altered book, Tess, and the stories behind it (both Arnold's and yours). Give yourself permission to make more of these - to keep, and to give!

Oh, and long live the book business...

tess said...

Thank you Sarah! What a nice surprise to see you here. Believe it or not, I have not tossed it in the wastebasket which in itself is a miracle. Had I done so it would not have been without precendent. I do suffer from the editor on the shoulder!