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david cecil

Samantha Zighelboim: How did you become interested in the process of erasure?

Matthea Harvey: I first read about erasures in Heather McHugh’s wonderful book, Broken English. There’s an image from Tom Phillips’s A Humument  (which I adore) on the cover and her essay, “Broken, As in English” discusses, in her characteristically brilliant way (“All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages at every turn”) Phillips’ work as well as the fragments of Archilochus (“the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”), Heraclitus and Parmenides.

It’s interesting to think about what the eraser’s attitude towards their text is. Jen Bervin’s beautiful Nets is a respectful erasure—she allows her erased poems to talk to the original Shakespeare sonnets because the poems are printed in grey and her selections are in boldface (or shyface). Someone like Srikanth Reddy, in Voyages (an erasure of Kurt Waldheim’s memoirs) understandably has a different attitude towards the text, as does the artist Ariana Boussard-Reifel. She had a piece in the Museum of Arts and Design show, “Slashed, Under the Knife”—a book in which each word has been individually excised (it’s presented with those words in a pile next to it). Only when you read the wall text do you discover that the book was a white supremacist bible. I also love Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes and Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. As James Tate once said, “Poetry is everywhere. It just needs editing.”

Before you fortuitously found David Cecil’s book that fateful day, were you interested in Charles Lamb’s works? It’s interesting that he wrote that wonderful volume of Shakespeare (Stories from Shakespeare) interpretations for children, almost nursery rhyme-esque in essence.

To be honest, he hadn’t made a big impression on me, but once I’d erased his biography, I was hooked. Along with the Tales from Shakespeare, Charles and Mary did write a book of poems for children, but none about Mary and her little lamb, since the poem that inspired that nursery rhyme was written in 1830, many years after they published their book). His essays (The Essays of Elia)are marvelous. I love Anne Fadiman’s essay “The Unfuzzy Lamb,” Sarah Burton’s A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb and Charles and Mary’s letters. It was funny to find tidbits like this one, from a letter to Coleridge: “[Lamb here erases six lines] Is it not a pity so much fine writing should be erased?” Or this to another friend, Thomas Manning: “I have scratched out a great deal, as you will see. Generally what I have rejected was either false in feeling, or a violation of character—mostly of the first sort.” He was erasing himself quite frequently! Or this heartbreaking glimpse into the siblings’ lives in one of Mary’s letters: “You would laugh, or you would cry, perhaps both, to see us sit together looking at each other with long and rueful faces, & saying how do you do? & how do you do? & then we fall a crying and say we will be better on the morrow — he says we are like tooth ach & his friend gum bile, which though a kind of ease, is but an uneasy kind of ease, a comfort of rather an uncomfortable sort.”

Did you expect the poems or the narrative to take the darker twists and turns that they did?

Well, page one (in the original—we selected 100 pieces out of 108 and reordered them)was “Lamb lived in the background” and page two was “Lamb disliked the lark: that little orchestra. The world showed grey as something fallen from the mind,” so I think the somewhat gloomy sieve of my brain was at work from the beginning. It’s probably more of a surprise for the reader—especially given the bright colors of the paintings. That being said, I certainly didn’t expect them to fall in love and have sex!

How much did your own childhood experience (if any) with this particular nursery rhyme influenced the process?

Well, I’ve always been crazy about animals, so I do remember liking the story of Mary and the lamb that followed her to school, when I was little. Until the age of eight, I lived in Dorset, England, where there were plenty of sheep. Ultimately, my immense sympathies for the lamb in the book, probably owe more to my codependent relationship with my 17 year old cat, Wednesday.

Amy Jean Porter’s paintings add layers of complexity to the already palimpsestic process of erasure and composition. When did the idea to illustrate the poems come into play? What do you think that visual element added to the work?

At first, I was just erasing the book for fun. As a story emerged, the characters became very real to me. I had just done a children’s book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake with Elizabeth Zechel, and I loved that process so much that I started wanting to do another book that blended text and image. I was already a fan of Amy Jean’s paintings—there’s no one who works with animals and text like her (right now she’s doing text messages on butterflies) and I liked the idea of handing over my text so that she could then transform (erase, expand, complicated) it with her images.

Do you think details (the love and madness and violence) of Charles Lamb’s life filtered into the poems?

Here’s another quote from Lamb—“You may extract honey from every thing; do not go a gathering after gall…” It’s good life advice, right? But I couldn’t extract only the honey—there’s so much sadness in their biography. Mary killed their mother in a fit of madness and Charles devoted his life to looking after her. When Mary smiled in a strange way, Charles would have to put a straitjacket on her, and the two of them would walk—weeping—back to the madhouse again. They lived with her madness every day (Charles himself spent a short while at a madhouse), so the word “madness” appeared relatively frequently in the biography, and worked its way into the text. I didn’t feel like I was guiding the poems(or that I was consciously blending the nursery rhyme with the siblings’ story) as I erased—more that I was excavating a story that was already there.

by Matthea Harvey, illustrated by Amy Jean Porter

Of Lamb is the rare, special kind of book that is so beautiful one can’t help but keep it wrapped in tissue paper when they’re carrying around, as they might a shiny stone kept for luck. A collaboration between painter Amy Jean Porter and poet Matthea Harvey (Modern Life, Sad Little Breathing Machine), the book is an art object.  Porter’s one hundred paintings become integral to Harvey’s sad, strange love story; they complete it, shading it with whimsy, irony and surrealism.

It’s interesting to read Of Lamb beginning with the endnotes, where Harvey discusses the unique process of the book’s conception. Inspired by other erasures or appropriations of texts like Jen Bervin’s Nets, Harvey challenged herself to pick up the first book she could find and “erase” it. That book was David Cecil’s A Portrait of Charles Lamb, the story of well-regarded Victorian writer Charles Lamb and his sister, Mary, who in 1796, after an acute episode of depression and mania, stabbed their mother in the heart with a kitchen knife, killing her. The courts declared a verdict of lunacy, and, had it not been for Charles—who offered to become his sister’s legal caretaker—Mary would have resided in an asylum for the rest of her life. Details of this devastating tale of madness, filial devotion, grief and tragedy become the presiding specters of Of Lamb, seeping into the narrative and haunting it with melancholic shadows.

Harvey has excavated a surreal, often somber, incredibly weird and passionate retelling of the nursery rhyme most of us are familiar with.  “Mary had a Little Lamb” ends with the lines: “’Why does the lamb love Mary so?’/the eager children cry./’Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know.’/the teacher did reply.” That sentiment of unconditional love found in the rhyme is what is explored most fundamentally in Of Lamb. When does love become conditional? Is it appropriate to love another so different from ourselves? Does it even matter if it’s appropriate? When does love trump all differences, and when are those differences the destruction of love, and of ourselves?

In Harvey’s version, Lamb and Mary fall in love. They even have sex (“They pin’d and hungr’d/after bodily joy”); consider having children (“What did Mary think/of children? Lamb/a father of a dark-haired little girl-lamb?”); and grow old together (“In old age,/Lamb did think/he should be/happier.”). Lamb, longing to be human, is forced to reconcile with the most real and harshest of human attributes, and is never quite allowed to forget who or what he is. A particularly dark moment occurs when Lamb sees Mary eating mutton (earlier, we hear Mary call Lamb “delicious”). The following page has an illustration of Lamb standing on a table and biting his hind legs, hovering over the lines “Actually, Lamb/liked meat.” For Lamb—full of ambitions, dreams, and an undying love for his companion—the desire to love and be loved as a human being is, ultimately, his demise.

For an erasure to succeed, something entirely original must be resurfaced from its source text. This happens on three levels in Of Lamb: first, Harvey’s poem-story, a boggling of the imagination in its own right, emerging from a strictly non-fiction text; secondly, Porter’s paintings, which further resurface meaning from and add trope to Harvey’s text.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this palimpsestic process of removing in order to create—itself the ribcage containing the heart of Of Lamb—mirrors the growth (and destruction) of its characters. Lamb and Mary chip away at themselves by questioning relentlessly just what it means to be human, what it means to give oneself to another—and eventually reveal “the pathetic little pair” that they are.  What Harvey and Porter have made for us is a story that resonates and echoes long after the pages have been turned.  It remains as a constant reminder of the inevitability of human nature and, ultimately, love.