Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath An embassy. Their numbers as he watched, Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.
And wrecks passed without sound of bells, The calyx of death’s bounty giving back A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph, The portent wound in corridors of shells.
Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil, Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled, Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars; And silent answers crept across the stars.
Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive No farther tides ... High in the azure steeps Monody shall not wake the mariner. This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.
in 2020, Robert Bolick, curator of Books On Books, kindly introduced me to Hart Crane’s poem At Melville’s Tomb. A complex poem about loss and reconciliation. It took some time to find a way to respond to its meaning. Initially quite daunted, I found with each reading the richness and beauty of the words unveiled images until sentences seemed to embed themselves into my thinking. It has subsequently inspired a number of responses.
With hindsight the timing of this introduction was interesting. I received the poem just prior to the Covid pandemic, just as the country went into the first of several lockdowns. I feel the poem reflects the mood of that time. Travel was restricted with only local walks permitted. I therefore found myself walking the same stretch of beach for weeks. Cranes words accompanied me on many of these early morning walks as I followed the strandline and gazed out across the large expanse of the Thames Estuary.
‘Beneath the Wave’ I A response to 'At Melville's Tomb' (Hart Crane) Monoprint using found materials, Acrylic paint, Sumi Ink, Fabriano Artistico paper, Metal Unryu Gold Paper, Tyvek, Greyboard. Concertina Fold, Slipcase
As thoughts tumbled through my mind, over and over, like the tide, ideas for the first response slowly took shape. I chose an accordion fold structure, consisting of mono prints from various objects picked up from the shore. It is a purely visual response containing no words. In this first response the accordion fold gives a linear sequential structure to the work.
During my walks I had begun to notice various wooden ‘splinters’ caught in the strandline. Misshapen and weathered by their time in the water, it struck me they were the perfect embodiment of this idea of a scattered chapter. Torn from boats and buildings, each fragment is in a process of change - being altered by the constant action of the water. They perfectly capture the essence of the poem - how the powerful force of the sea claims, discards and reshapes objects.
'A Scattered Chapter' II A response to 'At Melville's Tomb' (Hart Crane) II Greyboard, Gesso, Acrylic, Tyvek, Washi Paper,Sumi ink, Metal Unryu Gold Paper, Binding Tape, Found Object. Loose Pages, Boxed.
Having collected a number of these small pieces of weathered wood, and with the sentence in mind, a second piece of work (above) emerged. After much consideration I decided not to use the actual wood, but thought the sea worn shapes would make interesting templates for the pages of the next book. I wanted to create a book in which the sequence of words became completely disrupted which would be more in keeping with how objects are broken and altered by their time in the sea. Given there are sixteen lines in the poem, sixteen sea worn shapes were selected. A letter or partial word from each line of the poem has been cut into them. Textures and mono prints have been printed over their surface. They represent the disintegration described in Cranes poem. Broken, splintered, they have become traces; remnants reclaimed from the sea. The unbound pages are contained within a sturdy dark box.
'A Livid Hieroglyph' III A response to 'At Melville's Tomb'(Hart Crane) II Palm Leaf Structure, Box. Found Objects, Wood, Monoprint, Waxed Thread, Monoprint, Acrylic Paint, Fabriano Cartridge Paper, Sumi Ink, Greyboard, Watermark Kingin White Tissue paper, Washi paper, Canvas, Twine, Found Objects. Loose Pages Wrapped Between Boards, Boxed.
As thoughts continued to tumble around, Crane's words also continued to haunt me. I kept coming back to the line "a scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph". These shards of wood strewn across the beach are like livid hieroglyphs; they have been torn apart by winter storms and shaped and worn smooth by the constant action of waves.
My third response (above) was based around one of these splinters. The contour of the wood was the starting point from which the pages took shape. They have been printed in a similar way to the previous two books using a variety of objects found on my walks along the shore. Left unbound, they have no fixed sequence and can be viewed in any order. A thread twists around around the pages, weighted by two reclaimed nails. ("Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil, Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled" ). The book is then wrapped in a cloth bearing the ghostly shadow of a whale, ('this fabulous shadow') before finally coming to rest in a dark box ( 'its lashings charmed and malice reconciled' ).
'This Fabulous Shadow’ IV A response to 'At Melville's Tomb' (Hart Crane) IV Arches Velin Paper, Sumi Ink, Watercolour, Linen Thread. Double Gate Fold, Paper Cover.
The fourth response takes a very different approach using a more recognisable book structure - a double gate fold. The structure is one which allows the pages to be opened in various combinations thereby changing the linear sequence in which the book can be read. The entire poem is written out in columns through out the book. Crane's words guide the hand drawn mark, and are layered over each other until the text disperses and is no longer legible. An act that transforms the original form into something new. Deep blue pages offer a quiet contrast to the tightly packed letters introducing calm and mediative spaces into the piece ("and malice was reconciled").