American Collections blog

74 posts categorized "Literature"

26 July 2021

Shape-shifting: Creative research and 'The Owner of the Sea'

This blog by Richard Price is part of the Eccles Centre's special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research by scholars and creatives working across the British Library's Americas collections. 

In a past life I was a researcher, studying for a PhD. I was investigating the novels and plays of the writer Neil M. Gunn who wrote in the interwar period and just beyond. I used the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection in the Library to see what the state censor of the day had made of Gunn’s play The Ancient Fire (1929). Gunn had located this drama in two politically sensitive places: post-war Glasgow, dependant on warship contracts for the British Empire, and a Scottish Highlands dominated by super-wealthy, super-absent landlords. I suspected there would be crossings-out in blue pencil, blustering annotations – any manner of indignation – and I was right. The Lord Chamberlain’s office was not going to let that play pass across its desk without the sharpening of pencils.

I duly completed the PhD and to this day use “Dr”, mainly to remind myself I actually did it. As it happens the revelations about censorship – it is still quite shocking to see a person’s art damaged by systematic authority – didn’t form much of my thesis. As often in research, specific information you glean doesn’t always, or even usually, make it to the central argument. Mine was more about aesthetics and internal Scottish self-identity rather than British politics, though of course these three components have various kinds of critical relationship with each other.

And, bar a published paper here or there afterwards, that was it. Fairly soon I decided to settle for just two vocations rather than three – Librarianship and Poetry. I let Research go, continued to work for a certain national library then located in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum (among other places), and continued to work in my own time – yes, I have finally learnt to call it work – as a writer.

Or I thought I had left Research. As the years have gone on, I’ve realised that thing that is reading and thinking and conversing about a subject before making something from that activity is still, of course, Research. 

Here are some topics I’ve felt the need to study for creative projects over the years: medical and psychological interventions for insomniacs (Rays, poetry, 2009); airborne pathogens (The Island, novel, 2010); stroke and patient care (Small World, poetry, 2012); the Scottish Highlands in wartime (Wind-breakers, Sea-Eagles and Anthrax, radio, 2019); the history of little magazines (Is This A Poem?, essays, 2015); the music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (The World Brims by the Loss Adjustors, album, 2018); and, most recently, Inuit legends (The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold, poetry, 2021). I’ve used a mixture of interviews with practitioners, straight-out purchases of academic books, and of course library-based study for all these.

Writing that paragraph I realise I’ve just missed the most significant segment of research that I have carried out: reading poetry. Contemporary poetry, yes, but poetry from all kinds of territories, times and directions, too; books and magazines about poetry which maintain context and skills knowledge; and of course conversations and correspondence with other poets and with readers including those who may not even know they could like poetry. Any writer, I imagine, is continually and voraciously reading works within their form and discussing them, so much so that they lose sight of it sometimes as study, as ‘Research’. In some ways, I hope that they do lose sight of it. Play, pleasure, enjoyment – immersion – perhaps, these are under-rated qualities in a society driven, at times, by a mixing up of  education and the work ethic? In any case, all this is the circulating blood at the heart of research, creatively speaking.

I think there’s another element, and perhaps that is also ‘invisible’ to many as labour, as researching activity. It is developing a practical understanding of the material demands, from physical form to people networks, that one’s art moves in, through, and across. For visual artists this is, say, ‘To know the gallery trade’. For a poet like me, who often works with book artists, it’s knowing the artist’s book market and the kinds of possibilities book artists explore in their work; it’s working with book artists. The same is true for knowing the mainstream poetry publishing world: this doesn’t happen instantly but takes years of finding-out (and luck). Some may say that these are compromising complications for a ‘pure poet’ or equivalent artist but I’m not so sure that one can ever escape the material nature of even such an apparently ethereal art.  I’d go further, that the nature of its material form and distribution is a big enough part of its meaning for a poet to devote time to learning it. 

This helps in a way to explain how The Owner of the Sea came about, and how it was that this ‘invisible’ aspect of research inspired its creation. It was integration within the materiality of one part of the poetry world – artist’s books – that led to it. For well over twenty years I have, in my time away from the Library, been an appreciator of and collaborator with the Anglo-Brazilian artist Ronald King. Our first book was gift horse (Circle Press, 1999; British Library Shelfmark: Cup.512.b.232). It’s a large off-white book with very few pages and striking images which are not inked – they are ‘blind embossed’. The printing equipment has made an impression on a damped page whose paper has to be chosen carefully for its strength and stretchiness in the process. Because no ink is used on these images the eye relies on slight shadow and light differences to make them out. Ron ‘animated’ the image: he used the central figure of a horse starting from a standing position and gradually going into a gallop by the end of the book. The artist Karen Bleitz set the type of the poem in soft grey.

Decades later, after a series of King-Price collaborations, all duly and proudly now in the British Library collections, we joined up for a return to a blind-embossed book, Sedna and the Fulmar. Ron asked me to write a small set of poems based on one of the legends of Sedna, who is a major sea spirit or god, known by various names across different Inuit territories. As a young man, Ron had lived in Canada and had stumbled across her legend. He had never found a satisfying artistic way of responding until now when he would use blind-embossing as an analogy for Arctic white-space, the images imprinted as it were into the snow of the page.

Following his invitation to work with him again, the more conventional usage of ‘Research’ came into play for me. I began to read (and write) more about Sedna than the project required. I was particularly taken by Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten’s The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic (University of Alaska Press, 2008; British Library shelfmark: YK.2009.b.8589) which offered not only information for me to make narrative outlines but a rich sense of traditions and beliefs surrounding Sedna, including shamanism.

The cover of Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten’s The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic, showing the mermaid-like goddess in blue water.
Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten, The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2008; British Library shelfmark: YK.2009.b.8589

Unlike my encounter with the Lord Chamberlain’s plays, this time I wasn’t going to let the extra research go to waste. I very quickly established a narrative for a poetry sequence which would, yes, incorporate the small number of poems I had been commissioned to write, but would tell a longer story. I sent the whole sequence to Michael Schmidt, my publisher at Carcanet but also editor of the poetry journal PN Review. He offered to publish it in its entirety in the magazine almost by return of email. He also encouraged me to write more poems based on Inuit figures.

My study took me to further mythic accounts, from the more fragmentary ones assembled from various nineteenth century accounts by the anthropologist Franz Boas to Kira Van Deusen’s focussed and revelatory book Kiviuq: An Inuit Hero and His Siberian Cousins (McGill-Queen’s, 2009), based on the stories of living storytellers. This helped me counterbalance the story of the female god Sedna with the one of the male hunter Kiviuq.

The cover of Kira Van Deusen’s Kiviuq: An Inuit Hero and His Siberian Cousins, showing an Inuit person’s face.
Kira Van Deusen, Kiviuq: An Inuit Hero and His Siberian Cousins. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009; British Library shelfmark pending.

I also visited a now tragically defunct website, Kiviuq’s Journey, which Van Deusen had also been involved in, and which featured summaries of the tales of the mythic hunter Kiviuq. Again, these were taken directly from living Inuit storytellers (sadly, at least some have since died). Being Canadian, the site was out of scope for the work of our own UK Web Archive, but it does survive thanks to the US-based Internet Archive.

Screen shot of the website Kiviuq’s Journey taken from the Internet Archive.
A screenshot of the apparently defunct website Kiviuq’s Journey, taken from the Internet Archive: https://web.archive.org/web/20191214155128/http://www.unipka.ca/

So there were a range of focussed research resources I used for my poetry collection. But wait, I haven’t given examples of the ‘background research’ (like beneficial background radiation) that I mentioned is a way of life for poets – the collections we read day in and day out and the conversations we have. As my readers will know I am a poet of the sequence – from Tube Shelter Perspective (1993) to Small World (2012) – my poems inhabit connected narratives poem by poem, building drama, jumping gaps whose significance the reader will see as they read on. That is in part from being influenced by and having an affinity with such writers as the Tom Leonard of nora’s place or the Bernadine Evaristo of the verse novel The Emperor’s Babe.

Purple book cover of The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo, depicting a black woman’s hand holding a bunch of grapes.
A recent edition of The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo, originally published by Hamish Hamilton, 2001, British Library shelfmark: H.2001/2208.

It was adding this, what?, sensibility? towards the poetry sequence to my understanding of the narrative structures in Inuit story (at times trance-like, shamanistic, structures) that was the ‘breakthrough’ for me. In fact, sometimes it felt like writing the poems was being in a trance: I look at The Owner of the Sea and I don’t fully understand how these poems came to be written.

Conversations-wise I also shared my drafts with poet friends, including Nancy Campbell , author of Disko Bay and The Library of Ice, who has lived in Greenland and knows Inuit culture far better than I do. Nancy provides an afterword to the sequences in the book.

There is a key point about appropriation here, one that any researcher – creative or otherwise – needs to think carefully about when using the creative labour and common intangible heritage of indigenous cultures. I have, for example, been careful within The Owner of the Sea to acknowledge not just the authors I’ve mentioned but the many individually named storytellers who are cited in the key works. I’ve also emphasised distances in my introduction to the book, in asides contained within the poems themselves, in the jangle of contemporary UK language registers, and the distinctly un-traditional way the book proceeds. No reader could think that the book is anything but a contemporary collection from a Western poet, albeit based on the key moments of Inuit narratives. The original stories are not poems, they are in an entirely different form, the story of oral tradition, a tradition which has its own conventions and needs a set of sophisticated and localised skills for its rendering and which, though I imagine has some overlaps, must be very different from my own poetry tradition. My poems are also not translations and again I emphasise that.

Purple cover of The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold, by Richard Price, depicting a sculpture of an Inuit woman.
Richard Price, The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold; with an afterword by Nancy Campbell. Carcanet, 2021. Shelfmark pending.

It’s important, I feel, that the reader understands that set of distances and hopefully enjoying the different textures of poetry in The Owner of the Sea can, if they want, lead to the stories the book pays tribute to. I liken this distancing not to scientific or anthropological activity, each fraught with the risks of dehumanisation in such a context where framing is important to the investigating process, but as the distancing that takes places when any one art form, and its culture, tries to relate to another, especially across very different societies and (because the stories are hundreds and probably thousands of years old) across time. Instead of framing, ‘reaching towards’ is what such an activity does. An analogy would be, say, a 16th century painting from Europe depicting the story of Christ’s Nativity many centuries before in ancient Palestine. That artist, whether they are painting for devotion or for patronage or, as may be likely, both, cannot in the making of that painting, I believe, be seen as only ‘appropriating’ the teachings of and folklore around that religion. Rather they are responding in a way that is paradoxically distanced and dedicated: if they are an appropriator in some way they are also and, perhaps more firmly, an apostle.  They are also bringing in their contemporary world – the architecture of the stable, the nature of the snow – all European rather than Palestinian (in poetry, we would think of Peter Whigham’s Catullus or Christopher Logue’s Homer, where the world of now glances through the world of the past).

I am also aware that this painting analogy is itself a very Western one, and I use it here to give the  opportunity to pause to remember what trauma Christian organisations enacted on Inuit and other indigenous communities in Canada up until very recently, for example through the brutal residential schools systems. In fact in writing these poems I was driven by the sense that these stories -- where creatures are ‘human’’ and humans ‘creaturely’, all within a nature-space that depends on each and their relationship to each other -- were significant not just for their narrative interest but for their reflections on human behaviour. To write the tribute that The Owner of the Sea became was to place Inuit ideas, with all their unsettling challenges and breath-taking beauty, right into contemporary discourse, where they are much needed.

Richard Price is Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library. Richard’s The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold is available here.

08 January 2021

25 Years of the Moby-Dick Marathon

Did you know it's the 25th anniversary of the @whalingmuseum's Moby-Dick Marathon this weekend? Dig out your favourite edition of Herman Melville's sprawling epic and join the New Bedford Whaling Museum for a live-stream of this collaborative reading beginning Saturday at 11.30am EST (16.30 GMT), and partake in the conversation on the @britishlibrary twitter feed using #mobydickmarathon.

2021 MD Marathon
Logo 25th Anniversary Moby Dick Marathon

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon is a 24-hour, cover-to-cover reading of Herman Melville’s iconic American novel. Editorial Nascimento and the British Library are proud to explore the impact and complex literary meanings of the novel while tuning in to the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon.

To celebrate this anniversary, we will be posting a series of Moby-Dick related blogs over the weekend. Pulling together these posts has proven to be an endeavour that is worthy of the book itself, bringing in a wide assortment of characters, thematic deviations, and book histories: basement staff who went delving through our holdings of Moby-Dick editions (during which a “missing” Poe edition was rediscovered!); language cataloguers who spent time digging into interesting translated editions with their own unique histories; publishers, academics and Moby-Dick aficionados whose lives have been irrevocably influenced by Melville’s words and ideas.

We hope that you enjoy these posts, and revel in the range of stories and resources that they introduce you to. Opening the series is a post from Pablo George-Nascimento, director of Editorial Nascimento. Pablo follows the multiple threads between the publishing company established by his great grandfather, New Bedford, whaling, Moby-Dick, and the British Library.


“What surprised me the most, as I relaunched my old family publishing house more than a century after my great grandfather (Manuel Carlos George-Nascimento - a.k.a. Don Carlos) had opened it in Santiago de Chile, was just how well known the Nascimento name still was, and not only among bibliophiles.

Don Carlos
Don Carlos, founder of Editorial Nascimento

Our presentation in the auditorium of the British Library went amazingly well, lasting nearly eight hours with interest bubbling until the end. Something special engaged the audience's attention. It was hard to know whether that was the famous authors in the Nascimento back catalogue or the story of the publisher himself, whose journey to publishing stardom was both a novel and a poem in itself. Whatever the answer, there is no doubt that having Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral and Nicanor Parra, two Nobel Prize winners and one nominee, on the list of your ‘discoveries' will never be bad for your legacy.

Gabriela Mistral
Gabriela Mistral, Chile's first Nobel Laureate in literature

Don Carlos was born on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, half way between Europe and America, He had dreamed of going to Chile since he was a young boy, to work with an uncle who had emigrated there and opened a famous bookshop in 1873: the Libreria Nascimento. His love for books was fostered by his brother, a parish priest, who had built a substantial library in the house. But the thing that stoked the young man's ambition most was his father's adventures alongside another famous whaler, Herman Melville. Throughout his life, Don Carlos often called this his greatest source of inspiration for his love of books.

CARLOS LOURENÇO JORGE (whaler portrait)
Carlos Lourenço Jorge, Don Carlos’ father, a whaler who was credited by Herman Melville at the time of publishing Moby Dick.

Of eleven siblings, nine left the Portuguese Azores for the USA from the mid-1800s onwards. All of them arrived first in New Bedford. Don Carlos’ priestly brother, Francisco Lourenço,  became the parish priest of the Azorean whalers in the city.

New Bedford & Fairhaven map
Map of New Bedford and Fairhaven. By Robert G. Ingraham. Scale of feet, 3,000[ = 101 mm]. Cartographic Items Maps 73435.(81.)

 

Don Carlos was the only one to head to South America. After adventures and disappointments, eventually, in 1917, he opened the first publishing house in Latin America, in Santiago de Chile.  He kept the book manufacturing process in house by building a printing factory. Some of the most beautiful and innovative designs worldwide came out of Nascimento.

Crepusculario limited edition
Limited edition Editorial Nascimento 1937 of Pablo Neruda's 'Crepusculario'. The British Library holds the 4th edition at shelfmark X.908/23180.

The greatest artists of the period worked at Nascimento and, during his lifetime, Don Carlos built a catalogue of more than 6,500 titles, which included the first women authors at a time when women were still unable to vote. Gabriela Mistral, Marta Brunet, Maria Luisa Bombal, Teresa Wilms Montt and Maria Monvel are but a few of them.

Montana Adentro - Marta Brunet
Marta Brunet 'Montaña Adentro', 1923 Editorial Nascimento. Shelfmark X.908/85120.

Don Carlos surpassed his wildest ambitions. When he died in 1966, Nascimento had 35 of the 37 National Literature Awards on its catalogue, and had published Neruda's Twenty Love Poems, which has been the best selling poetry book in the history of the Spanish language.

Who would have ever imagined that this young Portuguese immigrant, born of a whaling and navy family going back more than 500 years, could have become such an important figure in world publishing? His vision was such that, every month, he would pack boxes with his latest publications and post them to the world's leading libraries, including the British Museum library. These went on to have a home in the British Library following its formation in 1973.

Poemas y Antipoemas - Nicanor Parra
Nicanor Parra, 'Poemas y Antipoemas', Editorial Nascimento, 1954

Today we are proud to knit this story together again. Nascimento was reborn in Chile and now in the UK with a series of innovative projects encompassing books, art books, performing arts and digital creations. With the imminent centenary celebrations of Neruda's and Mistral's first books, from 2023 we will be hosting a series of events and publishing a number of carefully selected limited artistic editions from our original back catalogue.

We start by bringing you a celebration of the most famous book of that period: the Moby-Dick Marathon. The New Bedford Whaling Museum celebrates the 25th anniversary of this 24-hour-long annual event held in the museum. Editorial Nascimento have previously worked with the Museum to produce a simultaneous Portuguese language version of the marathon.

New Bedford Whaling Museum logo
New Bedford Whaling Museum logo

This year, in these unique circumstances, the Moby-Dick Marathon moves online, giving many thousands the chance to share this intimate occasion. In association with the British Library we bring you this unique opportunity to take part in this non-stop reading.”


Join the Americas blog again tomorrow to hear from more people about how Moby Dick has influenced them, and join in watching the livestream of the Moby-Dick Marathon.


Prodcued by the New Bedford Whaling Museum and presented by Editorial Nascimento in association with the British Library.

30 July 2020

Exploring Robert Lowell's English years in the Sound Archive

This blog by Grzegorz Kosc is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

Robert Lowell stands in front of a wall of books, wearing a light jacket, dark tie, striped shirt and glasses.
Robert Lowell at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Harvard Square, 1965, by Elsa Dorfman. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The British Library has a truly unique collection of recorded interviews with friends, associates, and spouses of the celebrated American confessional poet Robert Lowell (1917–1977) (the collection can be most effectively searched through the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue, C939/01–53).  The interviews were conducted and recorded in 1979 by poet and editor Ian Hamilton in preparation, first, for a BBC2 television programme about Lowell in the Lively Arts series, broadcast in February 1980, and, second, for Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982).  The interviewees include, for instance, Frank Bidart, his close friend and assistant who was to become a famous poet himself; his editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith; Jonathan Raban, Frank Parker, William Alfred, and Eugene McCarthy.  The subjects even include Mrs Dignam, a cleaner in Castletown House where he and his third wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, moved shortly before they broke up, and who was the last person to see Lowell before his death.  Two interviews Hamilton conducted with Lowell’s two wives, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Blackwood herself, crown the collection.

The interviews have never been published or transcribed for a print publication.  It’s unclear how their revelations informed or impacted Hamilton’s final narrative for, when one listens to them, they continue to sparkle with surprises.  They can be accessed only by visiting the Library.  Though they are fully digitized from original compact cassettes, they can be heard out only from the Library’s computers and therefore are not easily accessible to Lowell scholars usually swarming on the other side of the Atlantic where all the major Lowell archival collections are housed—that is, at the Houghton, Harvard and the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.  Hamilton’s tapes in London remain largely unexamined.  Lowell scholars make a mental note of their existence but few seem to have made the journey.  Only the most painstaking of researchers—like Saskia Hamilton, the editor of Lowell’s letters, or Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of his psychobiography Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire—got around to listening to them.

Cover of The Dophin including an illustration of a fish-like shape.
The Dolphin by Robert Lowell, 1973. British Library shelfmarks: General Reference Collection X.989/21486; Document Supply 73/5755; Document Supply 73/6262.

The continuing neglect of the recordings by researchers is regrettable because they are rich in more ways than one.  It’s a trove of portraits of people from Lowell’s circle and of revelations about the poet’s late life in England.  One is struck, for instance, by the personality and the peculiar, odd conversational talent of Francis Stanley Parker, one of Lowell’s closest and oldest friends, a Cambridge, Mass.-based artist who did all of the frontispieces for Lowell’s volumes.  One is drawn into Jonathan Raban’s detailed and intimate account of his days he spent with the Lowells at Blackwood’s mansion Milgate Park in Kent.

Robert Lowell, wearing a dark jacket and tie, and Elizabeth Hardwick, wearing a dark summer dress or blouse, sit on wooden chairs in a sunny park.
Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. Photograph courtesy the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

However, the most haunting are the monologues, of several hours each, by Elizabeth Hardwick and Lady Caroline Blackwood.  Blackwood is very casual, matter-of-fact, dividing her attention between Hamilton and her daughters, very honest about the divorce deal Lowell made with Hardwick and about her growing realisation of the terrors she would have deal with in Lowell’s manic phases.  Convivial and perhaps slightly lubricated with a drink, Elizabeth Hardwick, too, is forthright and unreserved in her conversation with Hamilton.  One wants to listen to the recordings for hours for her personality, her special mood that day, and most importantly, for her complex attitude to “the real [. . .] Aspern Papers”--that is, despairing letters which she was sending to Lowell in the early 1970s when they were breaking up and he was turning his attention to Caroline and which he versified into sonnets for The Dolphin (1973).  The story has recently received a full treatment in The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 and The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1971–1973, both volumes edited by Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).  And yet Hardwick’s rich monologue continues to be fresh and surprising.  She monologizes at length about the letters, telling Hamilton, among other things, that what really angered her was that her husband had misrepresented her words and tone, making her letter seem “flat and dull.”  She was most irritated by the sonnet “In the Mail” intoning lame decencies, allegedly coming from under her pen, about her daughter being “normal and good because she had normal and good parents.”  She also told Hamilton an unknown story which I think is a research lead, about how one day she and Lowell went over the Selected Poems in hardcover and she made him review the selection and tweak the Dolphin sonnets once again to address her complaints.  How the paperback edition of the Selected differs from the original hardcover will be the next step in my research.

The recordings of Ian Hamilton’s interviews at the British Library remain a rich resource to the students of Lowell’s late career.  They offer memorable portraits of Lowell’s loved ones and of several talented writers and intellectuals from his circle.  Whilst the Hamilton tapes are only accessible in the Reading Rooms, a later interview with Elizabeth Harwick is available on the British Library Sounds webpages, as part of the ICA talks series.  In this interview she discusses her life and works.  Interestingly, she comes across as a little haughty and blasé in this public forum, quite different in her manner from the way she behaved with Hamilton.

Grzegorz Kosc (University of Warsaw) was an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2018. He is co-editing, with Steven G. Axelrod of the University of California Riverside, Robert Lowell’s Memoirs to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021. He is also a co-editor, with Thomas Austenfeld of the University of Fribourg, of Robert Lowell in Context for Cambridge University Press, slated for 2022. His own research work is focused on the question of how Lowell’s late financial problems affected his poetics.

28 July 2020

Colonial American Theatre

This post by Jeffery Kennedy is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

As friends and colleagues heard that I had received a Fulbright Scholar Award to the British Library, their first question was to ask what I would be researching.  When I told them a new text on American Theatre history, their puzzled look was typically followed by “At the British Library?”  The reality is that studying British theatre of the 17th and 18th centuries is precisely where one needs to begin as this is the origin from which almost all of Early American theatre springs.  My research goals while a guest of the Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies revolved around three main threads of study: 1) identifying the British ancestry of colonists recorded to have performed the first play in the American colonies; 2) the significant influence the Puritans had on theatre in both Britain and America; and 3) the Restoration plays that were the first to be performed professionally in the colonies.  I want to report here about the first item, which was the ancestral work the resources at the Library allowed me to complete.

A contemporary heritage plaque indicating where 'The Bear and the Cub' was performed.
The Bear and the Cub Marker: This sign is located on Highway 17 in Pungoteague, Virginia, telling of the town’s history of staging the first play in America. Image courtesy of Jeffery Kennedy.

The first recorded play performed in the American colonies took place on 27 August 1665 in Pungoteague, Accomack County, Virginia.  The play was titled “Ye Beare and Ye Cubb,” and we know of the performance because of its entry in the legal record.  After being performed in Fowlkes Tavern, a citizen, Edward Martin, reported his moral objection to the local authorities, though what his protest was specifically is not known.  Likely it sprang as a remnant from the twenty-year ban on theatre in Britain that was a result of Puritan dominance after 1640.  The Puritans, who desired a stricter religious practice than the new Church of England required, believed that theatre was, at its core, evil.  Charles I was beheaded as head of the Church of England by the Puritan rebellion led by Oliver Cromwell and monarch rule was suspended.  Puritan influence led to similar kinds of judgements about theatre in America, particularly in the northeastern colonies of New England.  However, the “Restoration” occurred after Charles II was installed as king in 1660, returning Britain to being led by a monarch.  As a result, theatres reopened in London, most often performing frivolous comedies of manners that featured women on stage for the first time.

A sepia photograph of a tavern with 15 or so people standing in front.
An old photograph of Fowlkes Tavern, courtesy of Jeffery Kennedy.

The local Accomack judges responded to Martin’s charge by bringing before them the play’s likely author, William Darby, and Cornelius Watkinson and Philip Howard, who performed it with him.  After they were “subjected to a rigid cross-examination,” the council ordered them to perform the play at their next session, costumes and all.After the performance, finding the play innocent in content as well as intent, the council released the three men from all charges and instead ordered their accuser, Martin, to pay the expenses incurred.  Sadly, there is no existing script of the play, nor are the plot or characters known.  Some scholars conjecture that the title implies a critique of mother England’s (the Bear) newly imposed restrictions on direct sales to other countries of goods created in the colonies (the Cub).  Also, little has been known about the lives of the three who performed the play, particularly Darby.  One of my goals was to conduct genealogical research to see if I could discover anything, including where in England he had emigrated from, something previously unknown.

I consulted many genealogical records within the Library, most of which were typically kept by the local parishes that recorded births, christenings, marriages, and burials.  One of the most helpful was from the Staffordshire Parish Registers Society, published in 1912.2  The evidence strongly suggests that William Darby was born in Tipton, Staffordshire, in the West Midlands of England.  His family moved to nearby Rowley when he was still a boy, and it is here that he married Elizabeth Heywood.  The last record of the family living in Rowley is the 1650 death of William’s middle daughter, Anne, at the age of nine; all references after this locate them in Virginia.  William had five children, and we gain the most information by tracing the life of his eldest son, Daniel. We know that by 1665, the year the play was performed, William was forty-eight-years-old and that this same year 25 year old Daniel married the 22 year old Dorothy Churchill in Accomack County, Virginia.  Dorothy had come to Accomack in 1664 as a “headright,” the name for those who self-indentured; such individuals were provided with passage via ship and basic necessities in exchange for a fixed period of unwaged labour in the new colony.  Whether the Darbys were freemen or became freedmen is so far not known.  Daniel eventually became a land-owner and served in local civic affairs.  How or why William was involved in presenting and perhaps even writing a play is so far unknown, but I intend to pursue this further.

My research through the Eccles Centre yielded this critical information, which is more than has been able to be confirmed to this degree by other scholars.  Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic required me to return to the U.S. after just a short time, not allowing me to finish more research.  However, I hope to return to the Library’s hallowed halls to pursue even more deeply those Brits involved in the vital launching of theatre in America.

Jeffery Kennedy, Fulbright-British Library Eccles Centre Scholar 2019-20, is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University.

References

  1. This comes from J. C. Wise, Ye kingdome of Accawmacke, or, The Eastern Shore of Virginia in the seventeenth century. Richmond, Va: Bell Book and Stationery Co., 1911.  British Library shelfmark: 9602.s.2.
  2. Staffordshire Parish Registers Society. Privately printed for the Society, 1902- .  British Library shelfmarks: Ac.8131 & Document Supply 8426.420000.

28 April 2020

The Library Quest: Andrés Bello (1781-1865)

Image of the bust of Andrés Bello photographed at the window of a conference room in the British Library
Bust of Andrés Bello (BLWA 91) at the window of a conference room in the British Library

 

Do you know this man? – His name is Andrés Bello and he was one of the most influential thinkers and makers of post-independence South-American nation building. Bello was born in Caracas in 1781 into the Spanish empire and, in his twenties, enjoyed a short career in the colonial administration, before the struggle for independence across his continent made him a life-long exile. In 1810, Andrés Bello joined the diplomatic mission of the continent’s foremost military leader Simón Bolívar in an effort to trump up political and financial support from the British government. Little did he know that the events unfolding back home would leave him stranded in London for what turned out to be almost 20 formative years from his late twenties to his late forties.

The long fight for independence meant that diplomatic funds quickly ran dry and Bello had to find other ways to make ends meet as a private tutor and translator. Sometimes better-off intellectual friends lent him a helping hand: the Scottish philosopher James Mill, best known today as the father of his more famous son James Stuart Mill and as collaborating with the founder of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham, was able to pay Bello for his help in transcribing some of Bentham’s manuscripts (Weinberg 1993/2000: 3). In these times of economic hardship, the British Museum Library, predecessor of the British Library, became his refuge and undoubtedly also a meeting place with other like-minded intellectuals. This was not yet the grand round reading room the outline of which is still visible today in the circular structure in the atrium of the British Museum, but the older, more intimate reading rooms of the previous building at Montague Square.

And no matter how dire his life and the prospects of ever returning home, Bello found solace in his work at the British Museum Library, painstakingly transcribing the fruits of his labour into his London Note Books, which were published in a critical edition in 2017 fittingly bearing a contemporary picture of the reading room Bello would have visited on its front cover.

 

Image of the front cover of Cuadernos de Londres by Andrea Bello, the critical edition published in 2017, edited by Ivan Jasik and Tania Avilés. It shows the reading room as depicted in a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd (1792-1864) engraved for print by Henry Melville in 1841
Front cover of Bello, A., Jaksic, Ivan, editor, & Avilés, Tania, editor. (2017). Cuadernos de Londres. It shows the reading room as depicted in a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd (1792-1864) engraved for print by Henry Melville in 1841. Shelfmark: YF.2018.a.9297.

 

When I started working as Curator for Latin American Published Collections (post 1850) at the British Library at the end of this January, colleagues offered to show me the way to the reading rooms. Although I had been an avid user of the library for years, I had yet to learn to navigate the secret passageways at the periphery – or backstage, as I call them – that surround the light-flooded public spaces and reading rooms. It allows us staff to help today’s users at the centre of the library efficiently and discreetly. So I tried our catalogue on Andrés Bello, whose work I know well, both from my student days at Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main, and as a professor of Hispanic Linguistics teaching his writings on language and grammar. Yet, what I thought was a safe bet, the British Library catalogue turned into a surprise. I certainly didn’t expect to find a bust:

 

Screenshot of the catalogue record showing the description of the record of the bust of Andres Bello: the research starts from Exploring Archive and Manuscripts catalogue of the British Library. The record shows title, author of the bust, collections areas, access conditions and other details.
Screenshot of the catalogue record showing the description of the bust of Andres Bello

 

This catalogue entry would become my unofficial induction course to the collections, which I began to inhabit over the course of my search for the elusive bust. The next couple of weeks, I continued to search the catalogue and asked many members of staff along the way, until I found the bust at last in a small meeting room at the end of an open space office at the end of a long corridor – or so it felt to me as I was asking my way to the goal: the bust of Andrés Bello made by his Venezuelan compatriot Lorenzo González in 1938, or what is more likely, a bronze copy of the original bust.

In the temporary absence of libraries (see blog from 13 April 2020), I feel it is important to remember that libraries are also physical spaces that provide more than knowledge and enlightenment, although Andrés Bello would have been the first to hail them for these important services. Thinking of the physical space and its objects, the light-filled atrium and the piazza, where readers and staff mingle in the summer, reminds us of the individuality of different libraries with their specific collection histories; and of their many readers and visitors, most of them not as famous as Andrés Bello, but who, like him, find intellectual nourishment, solace and joy within their walls. We look forward to having them back!

[Blog post by Iris Bachmann, Curator, Latin American Published Collections (post 1850)]

 

Bibliography and suggested readings:

Bello, A., Jaksic, Ivan, editor, & Avilés, Tania, editor. (2017). Cuadernos de Londres / Andrés Bello ; prólogo, edición y notas de Iván Jaksić y Tania Avilés ; con la colaboración de Miguel Carmona Tabja, Claudio Gutiérrez Marfull y Matías Tapia Wende ; epílogo de Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. (Primera edición ed.). Shelfmark: YF.2018.a.9297. 

Bello, A., & Jaksic, Ivan. (1997). Selected writings of Andrés Bello / Andrés Bello ; translated from the Spanish by Frances M. López-Morillas ; edited, with an introduction and notes by Iván Jaksić. (Library of Latin America). New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Caldera, R., & Street, John. (1977). Andrés Bello : Philosopher, poet, philologist, educator, legislator, statesman / by Rafael Caldera ; translated [from the Spanish] by John Street. London: Allen and Unwin. Shelfmark: YC.1998.a.612 

[A readable short introduction to the life and work of Andrés Bello written by a young Rafael Caldera, later to become two-time president of Venezuela.]

Jaksic, I. (2001). Andrés Bello : Scholarship and nation-building in nineteenth-century Latin America / Iván Jaksić. (Cambridge Latin American studies ; 87). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Shelfmark: YC.2001.a.12217. [Definitive academic biography]

Weinberg, G. (1993/2000). ‘Andrés Bello (1781-1865)’. Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIII, no. 1/2, 1993, p. 71-83. Online version ©UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, 2000 at: http://www.ibe.unesco.org/sites/default/files/belloe.pdf (accessed 15 April 2020)

 

24 April 2020

Poems from the edge of extinction (part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of our blog on poetry in endangered and lesser-known languages in collaboration with our European Studies colleaguesIn part 1 of this blog, we considered examples of poetry in Tongan and Yucatec Maya, and here in part 2 we look at examples in Patwa/Jamaican Creole and Yolngu Matha. If you've never heard of these languages, read on!

Patwa/Jamaican Creole

Front cover of book Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture by Mervyn Morris
Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture by Mervyn Morris. BL shelfmark YKL.2014.a.5466

Bun an Cheese by Louise Bennett-Coverley

Dem Bwoy dah jeer Miss Matty,
An a mock her an tease,
Dem a kill demself wid laugh mah
An a call her Bun an Cheese
 
Dem sey from Good Friday mawnin
Her jawbone no get ease
Mawnin  noon an night bedtime
She was nyamin Bun and Cheese
 
Fe breakfuss lunch an dinna
She got so-so bun and cheese
She kea it go a church an
Movin pictures if you please
 
She no count saltfish an ackee
Cut her y’eye pon rice an peas
Hear her “me put pot pon fire
When me got me Bun and Cheese!”
 
Easter time gwine come an go weh
Days an moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live dem bwoy
Gwine call her Bun and Cheese!

 

English translation

Those boys jeer Miss Matty
And Mock and tease her
They are killing themselves with laugh
And call her Bun and Cheese
 
They say from Good Friday morning
Her jawbone got no ease
Morning noon and nighttime
She was eating Bun and Cheese
 
For Breakfast lunch and dinner
She got only bun and cheese
She took it to church and
Moving pictures if you please
 
She does not count saltfish and ackee
Cut her eye on rice and peas
Hear her “I put my pot on the fire
When I got my Bun and Cheese!”
 
Easter time come and go away
Days and moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live those boys
Going to call her Bun and Cheese!

 

Coming off the heels of Easter, this is one of my favourite Louise Bennett-Coverley poems. “Miss Lou” as she was affectionately called is one of the most loved and highly respected Jamaican poets.  She uses the themes of food culture and local traditions in this timeless work. These themes highlight the love affair the protagonist “Miss Matty” has with the popular Jamaican Easter treat “bun and cheese”, closely associated with the popular English “hot cross buns”.  The use of the Jamaican dialect, Patois (Patwa) by Miss Lou makes this poem even more expressive and exciting. Regardless of the time of day, place and alternative food options Miss Matty is only interested in her tasty treat. This poem encapsulates the happy atmosphere that surrounds one of Jamaica’s most delightful Easter traditions.

Chantelle Richardson (Chevening Fellow at the British Library and Special Collections Librarian at the National Library of Jamaica)

 

Yolngu Matha  (Australia)

*Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that these pages may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material.*

Illustration of four kangaroos grazing
British Library Image taken from page 360 of 'New Homes for the Old Country. A personal experience of the political and domestic life, the industries, and the natural history of Australia and New Zealand. ... With ... illustrations' (BL shelfmark HMNTS 10492.g.19.)

 When a list of 200 Aboriginal Australian words was recorded in the north of Australia during James Cook’s voyage in 1770, it was assumed that these words would be spoken by all the Indigenous people in the country. One of the words on this list was ‘kangaroo’ (kanguru or gangurru), which was provided by the Guugu Yimidhirr people in what is now known as Far North Queensland. Yet, when European settlers arrived in 1788, in what would become Sydney, and tried to make use of the list, the word 'kangaroo’ was met with confusion by the local Aboriginal people who believed this to be an English word. Only later did the Europeans realise that the First people of Australia spoke more than 250 different languages, including 800 dialectal varieties, at the time of European settlement. For a visual representation of this language distribution, see the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia which attempts to represent all the language, tribal or nation groups of the First peoples of Australia. Of the 160 varieties still spoken, only 13 are spoken by children and 90% of Indigenous Australian languages are in danger of dying out.  

One of the 13 languages still spoken by children, and in somewhat less danger, is the language group known as Yolngu Matha (or Yolŋu Matha). Yolngu Matha, has around 2,000 speakers and is a member of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages. It is spoken by the Yolngu people in the north-eastern part of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. There are a dozen dialects of Yolngu Matha, each with its own name and with significant variation between them, though there is some mutual understanding between the dialects. During the 1930s, missionaries developed various ways of writing Yolngu Matha, which are still used today, though there is no standard spelling system. This linguistic complexity of variant spellings, and clan and dialect distinctions in Yolngu Matha (as with all the Indigenous Australian languages), has now been mapped to a great extent in the AUSTLANG database. This landmark project by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) provides the means for institutions to begin the process of attributing the correct language to bibliographic records, as is being done through crowd sourcing at the National Library of Australia.

Front cover of Nganajungu yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green
Papertalk-Green, C. (2019). Nganajungu yagu. Victoria, Australia : Cordite Books. BL shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930

When we look at the British Library records for poetry by Indigenous Australians, although we can find recent examples written in English (see Ellen van Neerven, Alison Whittaker, or Lionel Fogarty), those written in Indigenous Australian languages are far scarcer (although a welcome example is Nganajungu yagu by Charmaine Papertalk-Green which mixes Wajarri, Badimaya, and English - shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930). And while we can attribute this partly to historical collection practices which favoured non-Indigenous languages (and similar discrimination in the publishing industry), this is also due to the history in Indigenous cultures of spoken word over written language. 

Front cover of Song spirals
Gay'wu Group of Women (2019). Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. (awaiting shelfmark)

A particularly rich poetic oral tradition in Indigenous Australian culture can be seen in songlines. Also known song spirals or song cycles, these living archives of cultural knowledge and wisdom are preserved and passed on through song. Using cues from the land, sky and sea to navigate through space and time, songlines are handed down through generations. A member of the community acts as the custodian of the songline and these are rarely shared with outsiders. For this blog, I have chosen to highlight a 2019 Yolngu Matha collection, Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines  by the Gay'wu Group of Women (Allen and Unwin 2019 - awaiting cataloguing at the British Library). Here women’s roles in songlines are explored and the authors share five song spirals in Gumatj, a dialect of Dhuwal (also Dual, Duala), one of the Yolngu Matha languages.  

Below is an excerpt from Wuymirri, the Whale 
 
Nguruku miyamanarawu Dhangaḻa aaaaaaaa... 
Waṉa nyerrpu miyaman ngunha marrtji Bangupanngu. 
Miyaman marrtji Balwarri Nepaway, Maywuṉdjiwuy. 
 
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Dhuḻuḻwuynguru; 
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru; 
Nguruku miyaman ngarra marrtji Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru. 
 
Of that body of water I sing, I sing of the body of water. 
The arm of the paddler is knowledgeable, over there is Bangupanngu. 
I am singing about Balwarri, the whale, Nepaway, the open sea. 
Of the place between sunrise and sunset I sing, 
 
Where the whales swim with open mouths, scooping water,  
   filtering fish; 
A pod of whales, flipping and jumping, playing and roaming; 
A gathering of many people; 
For that I sing Rrawuḻuḻ, the place where the whales 
   are feeding.  
I sing for those people, the ones far away. 

 

In Indigenous Australian culture, languages with few or no speakers are described as ‘sleeping’, and there are some welcome initiatives to re-awaken these sleeping languages. These include the formation of the AIATSIS foundation to record languages and songlines and publish 15 dictionaries of languages a year over the next decade. An exciting effort to re-awaken language through poetry has been developed through the Poetry in First Languages project, devised by Gunai poet, Kirli Saunders. In this program, Indigenous poets, Elders and Language Custodians work directly with Indigenous students to write poetry in their cultural language. 


To hear Yolngu Matha in a musical context, take a listen to the award-winning Yolngu rapper Baker Boy who seamlessly mixes this language with English in his performances such as 'Marryuna' (Let's Dance) below.

 

 

Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections post-1850

 

Further reading:

General

Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137] 

Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project

Patwa/Jamaican creole

Morris, M. (2014). Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. BL shelfmark YKL.2014.a.5466

Bennett, L., & Morris, M. (2003). Auntie Roachy seh. Kingston: Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark YD.2005.a.1825

Bennett, L (1983) Selected Poems. Kingston, Jm. : Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark X.958/29332

Bennett, L (1949) Jamaican dialect poems. Kingston , Jm : printed by the Gleaner Co. BL shelfmark X.909/29896

Yolngu Matha  

Dyungayan, G., & Cooke, S. (2014). George Dyungayan's Bulu Line : A West Kimberley song cycle. Glebe, NSW: Puncher & Wattmann. BL shelfmark YD.2017.a.916 


Gay'wu Group of Women (2019). Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. (awaiting shelfmark) 


Papertalk-Green, C. (2019). Nganajungu yagu. Victoria, Australia : Cordite Books. BL shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930 

 

23 April 2020

Poems from the edge of extinction (part 1)

For this blog, and in collaboration with our European Studies colleagues, we have taken inspiration from last year’s timely anthology of poems, Poems from the Edge of Extinction, edited by poet and UK National Poetry Librarian, Chris McCabe. Published in 2019 (also the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages), the book celebrates linguistic diversity through poetic expression, gathering 50 poems in languages identified as endangered and presenting them in both the original and in English translation. It’s got us thinking about poetry written in lesser-known languages in the Americas and Oceania collections. In part 1 of this blog, we consider examples of poetry in Tongan and Yucatec Maya, while part 2 (to follow) will look at examples in Patwa/Jamaican creole and Yolngu Matha. If you've never heard of these languages, read on!


Tongan (Polynesia)

Tongan (Lea Faka-Tonga) is the national language of the Kingdom of Tonga, a Polynesian nation of 169 islands in the southern Pacific Ocean, and the only monarchy in the Pacific. Tongan is a Polynesian language of the Austronesian family and is most closely related to the Samoan language of the same family. There are around 190,000 Tongan speakers with nearly half of these living overseas in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia or the United States. Though not on the endangered language list, Tongan, like many Pacific languages, is in danger of an eventual language shift to English. As outlined above, the migration of many native Tongan speakers is a predictor for this, as well as the predominance of English in online environments, and with English being increasingly associated with greater educational and employment opportunities.  In an effort to counter this and preserve Tongan as the native language among young people in the country, the Minister of Education introduced a new language policy in 2012. Children are now taught solely in Tongan upon starting school, with English only gradually introduced at later stages. The policy aims for students to be fluent in both languages by completion of their education. Other efforts to preserve the language and culture among Tongans, includes the annual Tongan Language Week for Tongans living overseas in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Traditionally a spoken language, the first written examples of Tongan were made by missionaries using the Latin script in the 19th century, with the current spellings decided by the Privy Council of Tonga in 1943. The Tongan script uses three different diacritic marks to guide pronunciation and meaning: the glottal stop, the macron, and the stress mark, which often requires careful proofreading in text. The language is notable for having multiple speech registers based on status and formality, including one specifically for use when speaking to or about the reigning monarch or deities. With its strong oral over written tradition, Tongan language poetry is not abundant in our print collections. However, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a translated collection of the poetry of Tonga’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Sālote Tupou III, Tonga's poet on the throne from 1918 to her death in 1965. Songs & poems of Queen Sālote (2004) features 114 works by the monarch in Tongan with translations into English by the Pacific languages academic, Dr. Melenaite Taumoefolau.

Front cover of Songs & poems of Queen Sālote
Songs & poems of Queen Sālote / translated by Melenaite Taumoefolau ; edited by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem. Nukuʻalofa : Vavaʻu Press, 2004. YD.2009.b.1963.

Some of you may already be familiar with Queen Sālote as the head of state who received uproarious applause on Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Day in 1953, when she refused to lower the hood of her carriage in the driving rain, and instead laughed and waved joyfully at the crowds lining the procession route. Her spirit and warmth on the day prompted newspaper editor, Jack Fishman, to write a song aptly titled The Queen of Tonga (Music Collections VOC/1953/FISHMAN) which was then made popular by Edmundo Ros and his orchestra (Sound Collections 1CD0189529). 

Cover of the music score The Queen Of Tonga by Jack Fishman
The Queen of Tonga’ by Jack Fishman 1953 (Music Collections VOC/1953/FISHMAN)

However, you may not know that she is also celebrated as poet and song writer whose work, comprising of over 100 compositions, has played a major role in the preservation of the Tongan language and Tonga’s rich cultural heritage. Historian and biographer of Queen Sālote, Elizabeth Wood-Ellem, wrote in Songs & poems of Queen Sālote that: 

The Queen was… acclaimed as an extremely gifted poet. Queen Sālote spent many hours perfecting the words of her poems, and she invited groups of musicians to come to the Palace in the evenings to work with her. They often stayed until the early hours of the morning. Poetry that was set to music consisted of love songs (both happy and sad), laments for deaths of chiefs and those close to her, lullabies for her grandchildren, and songs written especially for the accompaniment of dance, such as lakalaka and mā‘ulu‘ulu. Love songs (hiva kakala) were often used as accompaniment to the solo dance for a woman, the tau‘olunga. (pp.279-281) 

Tongan language poetry makes great use of heliaki (metaphoric language) to make culture specific references to the knowledge shared by Tongan speakers. This can make literal translations difficult without using annotations, as the meanings and connotations of kinship connections in the heliaki often require explanation to non-Tongan speakers. We can see an example of this in Queen Sālote’s poem, The Queen’s Tears at the Passing of Tangata o’ Ha’amea, which employs the technique to bemoan that Ha’amea (a prominent Tongan chief) left no heir: 


Dear home of Niukasa 
Standing at the base of Sia 
With the stream called Fotu ‘afinema 
Once trickling but now empty 
Not a drop is left 

Diplomatic use of heliaki can be seen in her poem, ‘Uno 'o Sangone. Composed during World War 2, the poem is ostensibly about the Polynesian myth of the turtle Sangone, but draws heavily on the shared knowledge of the long history and connections between Tonga and its neighbour, Samoa. Through this use of heliaki, the Queen aimed to reassure Tongans and remind them of the importance of allies and unity during wartime:  

Ne‘ine‘i hako mei he tonga 
Tapa ē‘uhila mei lulunga 
He na‘e mana ē Feingakotone 
Fakahake ē‘uno ‘o Sangone. 
 
No wonder the gales blew from the south 
Lightening flashed from the west. 
The Feingakotone* thundered 
For Sangone’s shell was brought forth. 

Black and white photo of Queen Sālote with her husband Viliami Tungī Mailefihi
Salote Tupou III, Queen of Tonga and her consort Prince Uiliami Tungi. Ref: 1/2-005251-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22839741

However, to really appreciate the Tongan language and Queen Sālote’s work, you should enjoy it in the manner through which it was intended, such as this contemporary performance of Loka Siliva (Silver Lock or Locket), a love song (hiva kakala) she wrote for her husband, sung by the Tonga Creative Collective, and with translations from Tongan to English. 

For examples of more recent poetry from the Kingdom of Tonga in the British Library collections, see also Hingano : selected poems, 1966-1986 / by Konai Helu Thaman (BL shelfmark YA.1996.a.3558), and Mauri ola : contemporary Polynesian poems in English / edited by Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri & Robert Sullivan (BL shelfmark DRT ELD.DS.322430).

*Feingakotone is a place in the Kingdom of Tonga 

Lucy Rowland (Curator, Oceania Published Collections post-1850)

 

Yucatec Maya (Mexico) 

 

Image of the poet Briceida Cuevas Cob speaking at a book event in 2018
Mexican poet, Briceida Cuevas Cob. Photograph by Benjamín Anaya / Secretaría de Cultura CDMX. 2018. Creative Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Briceida Cuevas Cob is a well-published poet and cultural promoter in her native Yucatan, South-Mexico. The poem below is from the verse collection U yok’ol auat pek’ ti kuxtal pek’ / El quejido del perro en su existencia [The growl of the dog in its existence]. In her collection, she captures the violence and harshness of Mayan existence through the violence suffered by these abandoned stray dogs.  
 
Four poems from this collection were published in Latin American Literature Today, May 2018: Translated by Arthur Dixon. Here is one of them: 
 

VI 

¿Máax ku tich’ik chuchul uaj yétel u xdzik k’ab, 
u dzókole, 
ku jósik u xnoj k’ab u tial u jadz? 

Pek ta p’atik a yúmil, 
Pek ta chíik a yúmil, 
Pek’ a yama a yúmil: 
majant a uak’ti uínik, 
tiólal u choj xan u k’a u chí, 
ka u ch’ul luum, 
ka u pak’, je bix teché, u náatil kuxtal. 
Majant a uich ti uínik, 

tiólal u pákat yétel a k’om ólal. 
Majant a nej ti uínik 
tiólal u bik’ibik’tik, yétel a kímak ólal. 
kun alak ti: KS, KS, KS; 
tiólal u tákik ichil u yok yétel a sútal, 
kun alak ti: B’J, B’J, B’J. 
Majant a ti uínik, 
tiólal u yusnítik utz yan chen tu k’ab chichán pal. 
Jálibe, 
majant a dzaay uínik, 
tiólal u chíik u túkul. 

 

VI 

Who is he who holds out the stale tortilla with his left hand 
and then 
raises his right hand to strike? 

Dog, don’t you abandon your owner, 
dog, don’t you bite your lord, 
dog, you love your master: 
lend your tongue to the man, 
so the drool drips down him too, 
so it wets the earth, 
and sows, like you, the understanding of existence. 
Lend your eyes to the man, 
so he sees with your sadness. 
Lend your tail to the man, 
so he wags it with joy 
when they call him: KS, KS, KS; 
so he tucks it between his legs with your shame 
when they tell him: B’J, B’J, B’J; 
lend him your nose 
so he sniffs the goodness that only exists in the hands of a child. 
Lastly, 
lend him your teeth 
so he bites his own conscience. 

I have chosen this poem, because I remember stray dogs as a striking feature during my first visit to Mexico as an intern at UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) after finishing my MA. An older Austrian colleague with a proper job adopted a stray dog, when a group of us came home from a weekend trip. Looking back, this must have seemed a foolish act to many local people. Yet, we were a group of young and idealistic Mexicans and foreigners and this act of kindness towards the stray dog is stuck in my mind. 

When I read Briceida Cuevas Cob’s dog poems, I think back to the many mangy dogs on dusty roads I saw in Mexico and our friend’s little act of defiance in taking one of them in. I like how Cueva Cob in her poem binds together mundane experiences of ubiquitous violence with deep philosophical questions about life. And I like the rhythm of the poem in the English translation by Arthur Dixon. In the Maya original, which I cannot read, I enjoy looking at the distribution of letters on the page, strange and beautiful to me, unlike the spelling of any other language I can read. There are so many ‘k’ and ‘u’. It looks mysterious to me and makes me want to hear the poem recited in Yucatec Maya. 

If you feel the same, you can hear another poem by Cuevas Cob set to music by contemporary Mexican composer Hilda Paredes, who lives in London. Our library has the music score of two pieces composed to Cuevas Cob’s work.  One is called Codex of Enigmas/ Códice de Adivinancas [Scores at BL Music Collections g.1465.v.(2.)] and is a piece for solo viola and a speaker reciting the poem written in Maya language . You can find a video of a performance in France on the composer’s webpage.

Or if you prefer a different tune, check out the video from Tihorappers Crew, from Tihosuco, Quintana Roo (also in the Yucatec peninsula). It starts in Maya language and then switches between Spanish and Maya. Even if you don’t know Spanish or Maya, I think you’ll be able to hear the difference between the two languages and can enjoy the beat.  

Iris Bachmann, Curator of Latin American Published Collections (post 1850) 

 

Further reading:

General

Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137] 

Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project here

Tongan

Helu, 'I. F. (2006). Ko e heilala tangitangi ʿo Sālote Pilolevu : Ko e tohi vete ʿo e fatu ʿa e kau Punake Tonga ʿo tuku he tumuʿakiʹ ʿe he ngaahi maaʿimoa ʿa e Taʿahine Kuini Sālote Tupou III : ʿoku fokotuʿu mo fakatoputapuʿi atu ʿa e kiʿi tohi ni (dedicate) kia Pilinisesi Sālote. Nukualofa, Tonga: ʿAtenisi Press. Shelfmark YF.2010.a.28034 


Helu, 'I. F., P., & Janman, P. (2012). On Tongan poetry. Warkworth, Auckland, N.Z.: Atuanui Press. Shelfmark YD.2019.a.4936 


Otsuka, Y. (2007). Making a Case for Tongan as an Endangered Language. The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 19, no. 2, 2007, pp. 446–473. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23724904.  


Smith, K. and 'Otunuku, M. (2015). Heliaki: transforming literacy in Tonga through metaphor. The SoJo Journal: Educational Foundations and Social Justice Education 1 (1), pp. 99-112.Cardiff University, http://orca.cf.ac.uk/id/eprint/86002  


Wood-Ellem, E. (2004). Songs & poems of Queen Sālote / translated by Melenaite Taumoefolau ; edited by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem ; with essays by HRH Princess Nanasipauʻu Tukuʻaho ... [et al.]. Nukuʻalofa: Vavaʻu Press. Shelfmark YD.2009.b.1963 

 

Yucatec Maya

Briceida Cuevas Cob, Poetry by Briceida Cuevas Cob, Poetry without Borders, 2005, Nov issue, Accessed 22 April 2020:


Briceida Cuevas Cob, ‘Two poems by Briceida Cuevas Cob’, World Literature Today., 2010, 84(1), 16-17. [BL shelfmark: 9356.558600]  


Paul Worley, ‘On translating indigenous languages’, Asymptote, June 7, 2018. Accessed on 22 April 2020:
 

21 April 2020

Bernard and Mary Berenson at Villa I Tatti

On the first days of the lockdown, while making peace with the idea of being forced home by an enemy I couldn’t even see, confined in my cosy flat, and comforted by the pleasure of reading, I started leafing through my art books. I recalled those days, whose exquisiteness I was never enough aware at the time, when I had to lock myself in my room to prepare for my art history exams, back in the good old days of literary leisure as a university student.

 

Image of the painting The Compleat Angler by Arthur Hughes (1832-1915). The painting depicts a young woman lying on a meadow on the shore of a river, and dedicated to her readings
How I reimagine myself back in the good old days of literary leisure as university student. The Compleat Angler, Arthur Hugughes (1832-1915) Photo sourced by flickr uploaded by Amber Tree ©All rights reserved.

 

Among the very strict iconographic parameters, and names, and dates, and gallery details to be remembered by heart, there were those curious anecdotes that pleasantly livened up the monotony of the study routine. Today, I have certainly lost the pedantry of remembering the details but the anecdotes, I surely remember those, and so I recalled the story of Bernard and Mary Berenson.

I remember the story of how Bernard had been inspired to read more extensively the books of his library due to the confinement of a long period of isolation in his house, Villa I Tatti in Florence, and the story of his wife Mary. Ghost writer, art historian, suffragette, feminist and poet, and member of the Bloomsbury Group, together with her daughter Karin Stephen who had married Virginia Woolf’s brother, the story of Mary Berenson, has always fascinated me.

 

Black and white photographic portrait of Bernard and Mary Berenson at Friday’s Hill, Fernhurst, England. Around 1901. The photo shows the couple leaning on a low wall while looking at each other in a contemplative attitude
Bernard and Mary Berenson at Friday’s Hill, Fernhurst, England. Unknown photographer, 1901. Courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Biblioteca Berenson, I Tatti -The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Bernard and Mary Berenson papers, Photographs. Hollis No. olvwork178672.

 

Born Mary Withall Smith, from a couple of Quaker preachers from Pennsylvania, she was an art historian, and has been reassessed as an important author in her own right rather simply a ghost writer.

In 1885, after marrying the Scots-Irish barrister and political reformer, Frank Costelloe, Mary moved to England. Together with her parents, who had moved with her, she became very much involved in the social and intellectual life of the country, often hosting poets and philosophers such as Walt Whitman, with whom Mary was connected through mutual feelings of friendship and esteem for life1.

 

Black and white portrait of Maria wearing an elegant dress with fur trims, sitting on a chair, facing forward and holding her papers
Mary Berenson (née Smith) by unknown photographer. Albumen print on card, 1885. NPG Ax 160646. Sourced via ©National Portrait Gallery.

 

Mary had studied at the Harvard Annex, later Radcliffe College, a women’s liberal arts college and female counterpart to Harvard College, very well known for being the host of the late 19th century intellectual, art-inspired, and independent-minded female students2. Her personal inclination towards the arts, politics and culture were clearly stimulated in the Harvard intellectual environment. Supported by her feminist mother, Mary became involved in the women's movements in the United States and later in England, publishing articles and making speeches on feminism, suffrage and women in politics.

 

Black and white portrait of Mary on her horse Anticellere at Smith College in 1883
Mary Berenson (née Smith) on her horse Anticellere at Smith College by unknown photographer. Bromide copy print, 1883.NPG Ax160580. Sourced via ©National Portrait Gallery.

 

Not long after the marriage, probably displeased with it, and feeling constrained by the weight of the social convention, she abandoned the life of a devoted spouse and loving mother to return to her latent interests in art and design, and pursue a career in the arts. Focusing on art research, Mary rapidly became an art authority with a prolific output of journal articles, and particularly after the publication of a pamphlet, in 1894, on the history of the Italian paintings at Hampton Court, a work strongly influenced by the presence in her life of her mentor Bernard Berenson, whom she met in 18903.

The common passion for the Italian Renaissance art, and the several journeys to the continent and in particular to Italy, where Mary studied art under Bernard’s tutorage, made the couple fall in love with each other. By that time, Mary was energetically committed to work on Bernard’s projects and his public image, contributing to his essays, and writing reviews promoting his publications, and eventually moving to Florence to Bernard’s estate Villa I Tatti.

“… she played a major role in the writing of the Venetian Painters of The Renaissance, which listed Bernard as the sole author due to the social delicacy of their association … she published less as she devoted more of her energy to supporting Bernard's work (Mary Berenson)”4.

With such an established and undisputed calibre of art scholarship, it will not be difficult to imagine how the role of Mary in Bernard's works has been widely re-evaluated in the latest years. It appears now, that her hand in Bernard’s writing production and fame, is unquestionable.

***

Colour photograph of the terrace garden at Villa I Tatti, Florence, taken in 1925 by Frances Benjamin Johnson (1864-1952)
Villa I Tatti, Ponte a Mensola, Settignano, Florence. Frances Benjamin Johnson (1864-1952) photographer. Photo taken sometimes in 1925, from the album “Gardening in colour”, The Library of Congress, prints & Photographs Division. Sourced via flickr.

 

During WWII, Bernard Berenson, a Jewish American, and one of the most influential art critics of his time, was forced to live as refugee in his own house, Villa I Tatti, a beautiful countryside estate in Settignano, Florence, for around one year.

“With the war upon him, B. B. faced a terrifying future. In time of crisis some people go to church, some take to drink, others simply run away. B. B. turned to his library … His library is his fortress and is filled with the smoke of the battle raging outside"*.

In 1942, confined to an indefinite period of isolation when it was not safe to be a Jewish-American living in the Italian peninsula, protected by the American ambassador in Italy and by the people of the town, he challenged himself to a more extensive reading of his library, believing this would help him to stop from thinking too much about the war and all its consequences.

 

Screenshot image of the title page of Bernard Berenson’s book One year’s reading for fun (1942), published in New York by Alfred A. Knopf in 1960
*From the introduction to One year’s reading for fun (1942) by John Walker. (New York, Knopf, 1960), pages ix and xi. Screen shot image of title page.

 

In 1959, when the University of Harvard inherited the Berensons’ library, the whole nucleus consisted of more than 50,000 volumes, a collection of works mainly about Mediterranean art and culture, but including also a rich collection of works on Oriental art and archaeology, and of around 170,000 photographs. Mary and Bernard had put together this treasure in Villa I Tatti from 1907 onwards, when the estate was purchased, probably starting from combining their own private collections. In addition to a room which served as a proper library space, the collections had grown rapidly and consistently so that other eleven rooms were added to the main space in the following years.

 

Black and white portrait of Bernard Berenson in his study at Villa I Tatti surrounded by a few his books
Bernard Berenson in his study at I Tatti. Unknown photographer, winter 1948-1949. Courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Biblioteca Berenson, I Tatti -The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Bernard and Mary Berenson papers, Photographs. Hollis No. olvwork631213

 

Berenson collated the notes from his reading of his library in a work that was posthumously published in New York in 1960 by Arnold A. Kpnof, and edited by John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art and Berenson’s pupil.

And you? What about your quarantine reading? What lively quotations have you come across?

 

Bibliography and suggested reading:

Oakley, Maroussia, The book and periodical illustrations of Arthur Hughes: 'a spark of genius' 1832-1915, Pinner, Middlesex: Private Libraries Association, [2016] (shelfmark: YC.2018.b.2604).

1 Of Walt Whitman Mary said: “You cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without Leaves of Grass ... He has expressed that civilization, 'up to date,' as he would say, and no student of the philosophy of history can do without him”, see Reynolds, David. S., Walt Whitman: a cultural biography, New York: Knopf, 1995, page 4 (shelfmark 95/35007). Check the British Library digitised Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1867), and see also the eBLJ article on Walt Whitman by Dorian Hayes who discusses the poet’s virtues and the iconic first edition (1855) of Leaves of Grass held at the British Library (shelfmark: C.58.g.4.).

2 About Radcliffe College and its role as female college see: Kendall, Elaine, Peculiar institutions: an informal history of the Seven Sister colleges, New York: Putnam, 1976 (shelfmark: X:809/28730, or 76/23169).

3 Logan, Mary, Guide to the Italian Pictures at Hampton Court: with Short Studies of the Artists (The Kyrle Pamphlets; no. 2), London, 1894 (shelfmark: 07813.aa.7.). Mary Berenson wrote the pamphlet under the pseudonym of Mary Logan.

4 In 1984, the publication of Venetian Painters of The Renaissance, established Bernard Berenson’s reputation as an art historian of undisputed international fame, a book largely written by Mary. Check the British Library copy The Venetian painters of the Renaissance, with an index to their works, New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons [third edition], (shelfmark: 7858.r.37.). On the case of Mary’s role in Bernard’s publications see: Barbara Strachey and Samuels Jayne, Mary Berenson: a self-portrait from her letters & diaries, London: Hamilton, 1985 (shelfmark: X.958/31629).

Berenson, Bernard, One year’s reading for fun (1942), London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960 (shelfmark: 11878.gg.36).

Rocke, Michael, The Biblioteca Berenson at Villa I Tatti, in Art Libraries Journal, vol. 33, no. 1, 2008, 5-9 (shelfmark: 1733.461500)

Weaver, William, A legacy of excellence: the story of Villa I Tatti, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997 (shelfmark: YC.2001.b.988)

 

[Blog post by Annalisa Ricciardi, Cataloguer, American Collection. American and Australasian Studies]

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