Reviews, Vol. 5.1, March 2011
Another New Calligraphy, 2010
Perfect bound, 44 pp., $10
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Spencer Dew is a bibliophile’s dream. On a tactile and visual level, I was fascinated. First, there are the transparent overlay pages, imprinted with the inky diagrammatic outlines of a blueprint (a cathedral). As a child, I loved flipping through my father’s edition of Gray’s Anatomy, and I have to say it was that tome that gave me my first appreciation for the physical interpretation of books (read: overlays galore). Dew’s cover paper is delicate, soft to the touch; open the book, then, thin paper, plastic overlay (with blueprint schematics!), then, an introduction citing the historian and writer Henry Adams. And there is also, included in a semi-transparent envelope, a scale model of the cathedral at the location in the book’s title, with instructions on putting it together. The book is so handsome, I was afraid to touch it; it belongs under museum glass.
The story itself is essentially the story of a woman who travels to Paris to be with her dying mother. An editor, she is reading during her time there, as she endures her mother’s end of life and funeral, a book on architecture by Adams; this book gives her comfort and insight. In the book (both Adam’s and Dew’s) architecture, that art made functional, is the essence of the creative mind made tangible, made real, made permanent; is itself a recapitulation or re-rendering of the idea of living spaces and other spaces to exist in: “Architecture, Henry Adams argues, recapitulates and finds itself recapitulated in song–songs sung and songs unsung, songs of sound and songs of silence, celestial potentialities.”
The blueprint/overlay pages appear occasionally, and purposefully, throughout the book. At one point the narrator muses, “I take refuge in history.” Interestingly, when there is a turning point in the micro-novel, an overlay page is present, and the schemata interact meaningfully with the text beneath. At one point, upon the death of the mother, the text is interrupted with the overlay page’s diagram, that of the cathedral that lives at Rues Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, and the text itself reads, citing a quote from Adams:
The action of dying is felt, like the dropping of a keystone into the vault, and if the Romanesque arches in the church, which are within hearing, could speak, they would describe what they are doing in the precise words of a poem.
Dew’s writing is inspired, and the way his book is designed is inspired. There are themes of light, and of cathedrals designed over the centuries to let in continually more light, until they became so open that they lacked sufficient solidity to offer support in their structures. For the story itself, the narrator essentially writes herself out of the story, much in the way an author or an architect to some degree must write him or herself out of the creation. Dew writes, “The relationship between reader and writer has, for too long, been linked, among certain castes of sages, with death, its inevitability and incomprehensibility.” The woman losing her mother is not telling the story of her personal grief, but the story of death, and of what persists afterward.