In the midst of the very sad news that author Toni Morrison passed away on 5 August 2019, aged 88 years old, we shine a light on one of Morrisonâs many items held in the Libraryâs collection: the beautiful, âFive Poemsâ â a fine press book with illustrations by Kara Walker.
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on 18 February 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. Her portrayal of the black female experience through her writing has moved readers around the world for more than 50 years, and will continue to do so. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 and would become a Novel Prize winner, and further bestselling novels would follow, namely Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987) and Jazz (1992). It was not long before Morrison and her work were established firmly as âpart of the fabric of American life âŚ woven into high school syllabuses up and down the countryâ (Richard Lea, The Guardian). Alongside her Nobel Prize, Morrison would be honoured with the Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom in celebration of her literary achievements during her lifetime.
Upon joining the Americas Team just one month ago, one of the first treasures a colleague introduced me to was Five Poems (RF.2019.b.96) â a breath-taking fine press book compiled of Toni Morrisonâs words and illustrations by Kara Walker. As I began to turn the pages, I was intrigued (and blown away) to say the least. âI never knew Toni Morrison wrote poetryâ I thought, careful not to share out loud for fear of making a fool of myself in front of my new team of experts. But upon closer investigation of the book, I realised there was perhaps a reason for this oversight of mineâŚ
Published in a limited run by Rainmaker Editions of Las Vegas, between the large booksâ pages readers will be entranced by âEve Rememberingâ, âThe Perfect Ease of Grainâ, âSomeone Leans Nearâ, âIt Comes Unadornedâ and âI Am Not Seaworthyâ. Five short poems which compile Morrisonâs only poetry book, alongside them are silhouette illustrations from the New York-based artist, Kara Walker.
Reading an article by Stephanie Li (âFive Poems: The Gospel According to Toni Morrisonâ) in a bid to find out more, it transpires that, at the time of Li's research, âin the numerous interviews Morrison has given since the publication of Five Poems she [Morrison] has never mentioned the book or discussed her approach to writing poetryâ (p 899).
The book is said to have come about thanks to Wole Soyinka (the playwright, poet and essayist) who invited âMorrison âŚ on behalf of Rainmaker Editions to submit an original unpublished manuscript. Morrison sent five short poems, the full text of the collectionâ (p 899). Upon receiving the manuscript, the bookâs designer, Peter Rutledge Koch, suggested that illustrations be included as well. Si explains that Kara Walker, whose work explores themes of gender, race and ethnicity, has often praised Morrison and the influence the author had on Walkerâs own creativity; Koch saw the potential for the two artistsâ work to complement each other in this endeavour. Walker was contacted and the book was made with Morrisonâs words and Walkerâs five relief prints side by side.
This edition is one of the 425 issues printed and has been signed by the author, illustrator and binder. It really is a fusion of skill, care and total masterfulness from across the United States. Alongside the contributions from Morrison and Walker, Peter Koch Printers printed letterpress from digital imaging and photo-polymer plates in Berkley, California, while the binding and housing was done by Jace Graf at Cloverleaf Studio, Austen, Texas. Itâs a work of art in every sense.
It is with great sadness that we have lost one of the worldâs, not just Americaâs, most prolific writers. As chance would have it Iâm currently reading Jazz and Iâll be sure to savour Morrisonâs storytelling even more than normal during the commute home this evening, on a train journey that will be tinged with more than a little melancholy.