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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Matthea Harvey, author of Of Lamb, reads at Emory

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One of the most unexpected books to come across my desk last year was a collaboration between the poet Matthea Harvey and visual artist Amy Jean Porter titled Of Lamb. I flipped through the book quickly, thinking at first that I had picked up a children's book. Each of the book's hundred or so pages contains what looks to be only a line or two of poetry and a corresponding, whimsical painting. When I slowed down enough to actually read the book, though, I noticed that there was something oddly compelling about the verse. The phrases felt unexpected in a way that was hard to put my finger on. Words landed together in fresh orders. I soon realized that the paintings, too, were much more than lightly whimsical and brought the surreal, unexpected qualities of the verse into a bright, acid-damaged focus. By the end, the book's loose narrative seemed to have been a retelling of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" with sexualized undertones and some notably dark, dramatic moments. By no means a children's book, but also not not a children's book. Like I said before, few books turned out to be as unexpected as Of Lamb last year.

Then I arrived at Harvey's post script, in which she explains that Of Lamb is an erasure: a book composed by deleting words from an existing text. The easiest way to explain it is to simply direct your attention to the image above. Each page and painting in Of Lamb corresponds to a single page from A Portrait of Charles Lamb by David Cecil, whited out by Harvey into these short bits of poetry. That process put the book into yet another unexpected light. The story of the writer Charles Lamb, who happened to be a friend of noted opium smoker Samuel Coleridge and whose sister lost her mind and murdered her mother, seems to have permeated Harvey's poetry at some moody level. I've gladly reread it a number of times since and consistently found new qualities to appreciate.

Harvey and Blake Butler will read tonight, Thurs., Feb 23, at Emory Bookstore as part of the What's New in Poetry? series. The reading begins at 8 p.m.

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