Wednesday, 24 September 2008


Continuing the theme of the last post about the Simple to Sumptuous exhibition, I've been writing more poems.

This one was inspired by the fine examples of leather-bounds volumes. Leather was the most popular binding until the nineteenth century with domestic farm animals being used for every purpose available. The leather was treated with salt to produce a creamy white colour, very popular in Germany, whereas vellum was treated with lime.

The raised bands are due to the thick leather being sewn, and the corner pieces and raised studs are to protect the leather from rough surfaces. In many instances the dyed leather with a simple border framing the open space caused the primary ornament to become the natural grain and texture of the leather.

All of this got me thinking about the Enclosure Acts between 1750 and 1860, during which 21% of common land in England was enclosed by the landowners. Farmers moved to urban areas and began taking labouring jobs for wages. Marxist economists believe that this was the beginning of the proletariat and capitalist social relations.

Which naturally led me to think about George Orwell and his famous last lines of Animal Farm; "The creatures outside looked from pig to man and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." And so I wrote the following:


Domestic farm animals:
Calf; pig; sheep –
Thoroughly used for meat to eat
And hide to hide
The words of wisdom
Or otherwise
Contained within.

Treated with salt
To preserve and render
Tough but tender,
The creamy white hue is
Popular for palimpsests,
Kept from rough surfaces
By raised bands and studs.

Natural grain and texture
Is the primary ornament.
The simple border encloses
An open space,
Valuable to owners of
Domestic farm animals
Without the common

Drifting to town from forbidden acres
The country folk become
The man on the street, while
Landowners make laws with learning.
Noses in books they are
Hard to tell apart;

Clean and clever animals.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Simple to Sumptuous: Clasp

A couple of months ago I went to an exhibition at the National Library gallery called Simple to Sumptuous, which was a collection of book bindings from the Alexander Turnbull Library, ranging from 1400 to the present.

The function of a bookbinding is simply to hold the book together; to protect the pages from wear and tear. They are basic but practical – things of great beauty and collectors’ items in their own right. This exhibition featured many examples from around the world, including Europe, Japan and Antarctica.

The books are just gorgeous, and even the language used to describe them is rich and evocative: ‘decorative end leaves and pastedown on cream watered silk with gold-tooled turn-ins; red goatskin gold tooled and on-lain in black; endleaves of pale blue watered silk; velvet lined oak case’. It was inspiring enough to move me to poetry.

The first verse relates to the clasps and straps to keep the wood from warping and the vellum pages flat. The strap sewn to the top cover indicates that the book comes from Germany or the Low Countries; if sewn to the bottom cover it originates from England or France.

To secure knowledge, many books were kept in chained libraries with a chain passing through the clasp; there is an example of one of these clasps harbouring a miniature in a book covered in brown goatskin, edged in brass with gilt text edges.


Knowledge is power
But a little is dangerous
So it must be rationed.
There are checks and balances;
Keys and locks

Surround her face
In a miniature oval,
Clasping the spine tightly.
Her smile is serene as she
Guards her secrets.

Beneath layers of glass
Protected and displayed
Her image is eternal;
Impossible to analyse as a
Thought in words.