Some mornings you wake to sky cleansed by the rain overnight, crackled clean by thunder and lightning, and just a little mist settled over the trees. The fire is warm. The cat’s been fed. To prolong the peace, you read a few of your favourite blogs, one of them Commatology.com. And wow, this is what you find, the musings of a perfect reader:
The past hour has been spent in that dream. I was 23 when I lived on the island I wrote about in Inishbream. I was 44 when the novella was finally published. I held the narrator close to me those years in-between. She was—is—me, and she isn’t. I began this book as a series of prose poems and the people I showed them to asked for more detail, more connective tissue between the anecdotes and meditative passages. I remember asking myself, Well, what if you…and I won’t confess what I did, because I’m not entirely certain now which parts are purely autobiographical and which were invented. Or imagined.
When the book was being printed in its private press editions by the Barbarian Press, I’d receive phone calls daily. The Barbarians would want to check a detail, they’d send the proofs, one page at a time, by fax, and I’d know the presses were inked and time was of the essence. I loved everything about the book they created: the magnificent wood engravings by John DePol; the soft papers, the typeface (Eric Gill’s gorgeous Joanna); the bindings (there are 3 states and they’re all bound with different materials, even a special clamshell box of vellum and leather made by Hélène Francouer); and the way the handmade values of this work echoed my own. Echoed the place that inspired the book. Inspired me in so many ways in the life I went on to live. Sometimes I take down my special copy and read it slowly, wondering at the younger self who lived on an island at the very edge of the world, alone.
I was lucky enough to have Goose Lane Editions publish the book as a trade edition two years later. (I think they still have copies available for sale and if they don’t, ask me; I have some here.) I’ve been back to Ireland twice since then, the last time 17 years ago. Leslie at Commatology was just there and it was sweet (and sort of sad) to read what she found and didn’t find. She writes,
It’s a fictional place, but I locate its real-life cousins off the Connemara coast: Inishturk, Inishbofin, Inishark. Inish, or Inis, or Ennis, for that matter, all mean island in Irish, and bream are a kind of fish.
She was close. Those are all islands I knew. Mine was near them, yes, and named for a fish, though not bream. Remember what Ishmael said, in Moby Dick? “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” Or they are, but they’re hidden. Mapmakers and writers—we have our reasons.
4 thoughts on ““…housed in a clamshell box of leather and vellum…””
Loved those last lines. Great post.
Thanks! Further to places being hidden, there’s a history of the Irish Ordnance Survey, written by Gillian Doherty, that examines all the ways language and culture reveal themselves (and hide) on maps. Ours are the same, I think. Many versions of what a place is called, why it’s called that now, what it was named 100 years ago, or 400.
I love your description of how Inishbream came into being, and the original edition sounds amazing, especially your special copy in its clamshell box! Doherty’s book sounds fascinating, too. I’ll look for it. One of the things I love about England, and it’s undoubtedly the same in Ireland, is how every field has a name of its own, and once a place has a name, it rarely gets changed. I was able to find a house where my ancestors lived in the early 1800s, still named “Lower House.”
Leslie, when I was writing another book, I needed to puzzle through the geographic unit called a townland. They appear on the ordnance maps but often there’s nothing significant there, or at least that I could see. (Sometimes the very complicated rural addresses contain reference to a townland.) Then I read The End of Hidden Ireland by Robert Scally and that was so helpful. Mostly it’s a book about the conditions that led to the Famine and the great waves of emigration but it also decodes land use and the hidden systems that guided it.