Poe and Baudelaire

Birds of a feather sold together …


This past weekend, I wandered into downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, to attend a book arts festival sponsored by Pyramid Atlantic, a cooperative devoted to teaching and promoting every sort of paper-based art and craft. Part of the two-day festival included printing and papermaking demonstrations at the Pyramid Atlantic studios, as well as lectures by noted local artists. For instance, it was fun to learn how all those wonderfully garish posters—the kind tacked to the sides of telephone poles or kiosks—were designed and produced for visiting carnivals, county fairs, and rock concerts.

Did I mention that there was also a related book fair at the Silver Spring civic center?

As I sauntered among the booths, I noticed that one vendor was selling what she called Mean Cards. Instead of saccharine Hallmark greetings and congratulations, these were inscribed “Just Go Away and Die,” “Everyone Hates You,” “Jerk,” and “You Look Awful. Seriously.” When I pointed these out to my Beloved Spouse, that gentle dove immediately bought the entire stock. You don’t want to cross Marian Dirda.

I, of course, Mr. Sweetness and Light, continued my usual aimless meandering, pausing to check out the fine-press offerings from Baltimore’s Kelmscott Bookshop and to page through various limited editions published in runs of just 200 copies. In short, I was enjoying myself in a quiet, low-keyed sort of way—quiet and low-keyed because almost nothing at the fair seemed quite to my taste.

No matter how beautiful the paper, artwork, printing, and binding, I’m seldom drawn to a book unless it’s by a writer I care about or on a subject that appeals to me. Most private press items, however, tend to be of largely regional interest—California history, the journals of some early pioneer, descriptions of the natural world. All worthy subjects and worthy of support, but, as we used to say in the ’60s, not my thing.

So I felt free and easy under the apple boughs, or rather among the booths, until I came to Bowerbox Press. The proprietor, Val Lucas, mainly offered a wide supply of cards, handsomely decorated with birds. Ms. Lucas was clearly fascinated by all things avian because she’d also brought along two large woodblock prints, 18 inches by 24: one featured a gull-like seabird in full flight, the other a somewhat sinister crow-like creature.

The seabird first caught my eye, in part because of the bold title: “The Albatross.” I then noticed a bit of squared-up text, obviously stanzas, underneath the image. Now there are only two well-known poems that feature an albatross, Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Baudelaire’s “The Albatross,” in which he compares the artist, mocked and out of place in society, to the soaring seabird, which is comparably clumsy and awkward on land. I stooped down to see if the poem was a section of “The Ancient Mariner” or if it might be the Baudelaire. Instinctively, my eyes went to the last line, and I read: “Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher”—“His giant wings prevent him from walking.”

As for the black bird: since it wasn’t the Maltese falcon, it could only be, and was, a raven, with Poe’s Halloween classic somewhat tightly printed underneath. I suspect that “Quoth the Raven: ‘Nevermore!’” may be the most famous line in American poetry.

“The Albatross” and “The Raven”—studies in light and dark—certainly looked very handsome together. The pair, however, were hardly what you’d call cheap. Though neither were they impossibly expensive. Still, with wholly uncharacteristic resolve, I finally walked away. I eventually walked home, too, albeit in a thoughtful mood. And the next day I hurried back to the fair and bought both prints.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that M. Dirda is a sucker for anything bookish in the way of artwork. On the mantel in my living room you will see Leonard Maurer’s big etching of James Joyce—another copy used to hang in the offices of Book World above art director Francis Tanabe’s desk—and Dan Miller’s woodblock of W. B. Yeats and Ray Driver’s pen-and-ink portrait of Shakespeare as a sleek Broadway-style theatrical impresario. Back in the happy days when I taught and had an office at McDaniel College, I was able to deck the walls (and shelves) with the following:

A photograph of Borges

A framed postcard of W. H. Auden petting a cat

An old publicity shot of M. F. K. Fisher, with her hair sleeked back and looking to-die-for gorgeous

The reproduction of a photograph of bookman Vincent Starrett, with the caption “A cigar and lots of old books—what more could one ask for?”

A high-quality reproduction of a drawing of Ezra Pound by Guy Davenport, in the Easter-Island style of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

A colored photograph of Chekhov, set in an elaborate frame that I bought at a Russian store in New York

Two Richard Thompson caricatures of T. S. Eliot and Bernard Shaw, drawn in what looks like a soft gray conté crayon

A poster of Tenniel’s Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland: “Who are you?”

A framed post card of M. R. James, author of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, seen in profile at his desk

A period-style lobby card for a new translation of Jules Verne’s play Journey Through the Impossible

A poster advertising the Atlantic Center for the Arts (where I once taught writing and later worked on two of my books)

Lots of small pen-and-ink images, drawn by the much loved and still-missed Susan Davis as illustrations for my Readings column in The Washington Post


Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the Sherlockian art or the poster of Bettie Page or the facsimile cover of the first Batman comic. Still, like many of my books, most of this material is stored away in boxes, awaiting the day when I’ll wake up and find myself the owner of a proper library. If I’m lucky, my eyes will still be good enough to read with and my liver will be functioning, so that I’ll be able to sprawl in a leather armchair and sip brandy and gaze at these mementos of a bookish life—while listening to Ben Webster or Mozart on the sound system. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up