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.