The OF Blog: Matthea Harvey (poems) and Amy Jean Porter (paintings), Of Lamb

Monday, June 20, 2011

Matthea Harvey (poems) and Amy Jean Porter (paintings), Of Lamb

Originality, or at least the radical erasure and reconstitution of an original work, is a hard act to pull off.  There is something magical about a work that feels as though there's been layers stripped away to reveal a story that was not present when the words were initially composed.  In the came of Of Lamb, this is literally the case, as the poet Matthea Harvey took David Cecil's 1986 biography A Portrait of Charles Lamb, which chronicles his  18th and 19th centuries' history with his oft-mad sister, Mary, and created something that is an elegy to youth, to passion, to desire, and to the delusions of life and the madness it entails.

It is a challenge to write even a capsule review of this book because Harvey's erasures blend into Porter's haunting illustrations that it is difficult to talk about one without pointing out the other.  Harvey has carefully chosen each word from the available choices from the Cecil biography, with facing pages containing quotes such as "Lamb found Mary crying in the hedge" being followed by "As pretty as a poem was Mary."  Porter's images are vivid, with the languid Mary being contrasted by the sometimes pleading, yearning Lamb:

This image is representative of the book as a whole.  Notice how the words appear within the borders of the image, with the Lamb, here an odd green (he changes colors and even form often), peering into Mary's eyes.  The blue leaves accentuate the oddness of the scene and serve to underscore the "unusual" aspect of Lamb.

Lamb yearns, to be human, to be intimate with Mary.  It is a desire that takes on occasion the shape of mad jealousy, replete the horrid retaliations to Mary's diffidence.  As the erased story progresses, it deepens, touches certain raw nerves that formerly had lain dormant.  Harvey's ability to create evocative poetry (not to mention Porter's complementary illustrations) out of a biography is remarkable.  A structure emerges from erasure that bears nothing in common with the original yet is beautiful when beheld.  Of Lamb builds to a crescendo that crashes and burns in a magnificent way, leaving the reader pondering the poignant, weird beauty that can be created from the erasure of the mundane.  Highly recommended.

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