I've come to own a work of art that's meant to be seen, read and touched. Here's how it happened: we wandered into the art gallery at Overture one evening, waiting for the doors to open before a concert. On exhibit were works by Walter Hamady, the artist who has been creating books from The Perishable Press, his private press, since 1964. The press is in Mt. Horeb, just about a half-hour away.
I fell in love, with a thud, with the very first piece in the exhibition. Under a Plexiglas poster-size pane were mounted a few leaves from Hamady's book These Chairs, opened to his poem "Jidu's Chairs", written for and to his late grandfather ("Jidu" being Arabic for grandfather):
and I see you still, in the evening
when all the birds are singing
and all the things that grow in the earth
ready for the night.
The pages are printed on Shadwell, the press's handmade paper, named after Thomas Jefferson's birthplace. The typeface is beauteous Sabon Antiqua, handset. The title page bears a drawing, by Jack Beal, of a chair. The poetry makes the eyes brim:
from the green chair in the front bedroom
you could see my garden,
or the remains of where my garden was last year,
which is your garden
in the tradition you have made me in.
These are the lines I'll recite in the garden this summer...
and I don't know why there is such pleasure
in seeing things grow or the pleasure
in remembering how things have grown, the
Koosa and Okra and Betinjin that as a family
we grew at the edge of town on Mackin road—
was it the eating of the fruits?
The piece was offered for sale at the gallery, much to my surprise and delight. When we brought it home after the exhibition closed and unpeeled it from its bubble-wrapped layers, we were taken aback. The Plexiglas face wasn't attached to the piece's mat or backing. An oversight? No. It took a while for it to dawn on me that these pages of These Chairs were meant to be removed and read in hand...or at least once before being settled back into its protective frame. So I did, holding the thick marbled papers and running my fingers over the recessed imprints of the handset type...and found a few more pages of printed text that had been hidden under the leaves that were on display. First, the poem called "A Letter To Jidu," describing the day the artist learns of his grandfather's death:
Outside it was very still, and down the hill in back
I thought about never seeing you again,
how I thought you'd live forever to see this place
and give me some pointers on the garden—
maybe we could go down and pick a little watercress
like we used to on uncle Sol's farm near Kearsley Lake.
And an end page with an inscription dated Good Friday 1971, describing the making of the book, and its being printed in a limited run of 98 copies. Ninety-eight copies: for a minute my mind boggles at the thought. Can you imagine a blog being deliberately programmed to go to a 404 error after 98 page views? I love and revel in what technology makes possible, in the exponential, almost infinite ability to disperse a text so widely that it has the chance to be read by the someone by whom it was meant to be read. And yet I'm counterintuitively drawn to this notion of extreme limitation, of a page that can only be held in the hands of not more than ninety-eight human beings, and, being perishable, will, unless curated in temperature, humidity and light-controlled circumstances, crumble to dust in time. And so, in the closing words of "Jidu's Chairs":
There was a housing development begun before you
left for the old country, you didn't seem to mind.
I was fifteen then and nearly twice that now
that nothing sits still, the world is a garden:
there is no end to it.