25 November 2011

Don McKay and The Shell of the Tortoise

On the press this week is Don McKay’s The Shell of the Tortoise, the third collection of literary essays we’ve done by Don (Vis à Vis and Deactivated West 100 being the others). The Shell of the Tortoise continues Don’s investigation into the relationship between poetry and wilderness, particularly into the characteristics of metaphor as a tool. “Art occurs whenever a tool attempts to metamorphose into an animal” asserts McKay in the title essay, which is built around the myth of Hermes and his tortoise-shell lyre. Tools that metamorphose into animals? We’ve certainly seen some animal behaviour from some of the antiquated tools we use here in the printshop.

The book is set in a digital revival of Deepdene, arguably the best book type F.W. Goudy ever designed. Goudy drew the roman for Deepdene in 1927 and the italic the following year, and both were released for use on Lanston’s Monotype casters. It is a typeface I associate with the books of my childhood, and with my late friend Jim Rimmer, who admired Goudy and whose own type designs (Amethyst, for example) were greatly influenced by Goudy’s. Like so many faces from the letterpress age, it is like a fine-limbed race horse which requires careful management if it’s to survive on a modern roadway; it can wilt and fail in the digital environment or the flatland of modern offset printing. I know. I’ve failed and failed again to use it well, but I think I’ve finally started to understand its personality and adapt to its quirks.

In one essay, Don takes the reader over a buggy, boggy portage with the canadian poet Duncan Cambell Scott, surveying Canadian poetry’s complex relationship with wilderness. The genesis of this journey is a photograph found in Canada’s national achieves which depicts Scott, an agent of the Crown, standing at one end of the portage over the height of land between Lake Superior and Hudsons Bay, on his way to settle a treaty with the natives in that area.

I don’t care how often you do it, or how well you understand it. I’ve been printing books for nearly 15 years, and I still get a kick out of the way so many small dots, arranged in varying size and intensity, can through a sort of slight of hand, an illusion, replicate the continuous tone of a photographic image. This is a close-up, shot through my microscope, of the fellow on the right in the photograph, with the bug net on his head. This sort of reproduction, this trick of representation, is a sort of metaphoric, poetic act. A tool becoming an animal?

Well, enough fawning over the sheets. Fold’em, sew’em, bind’em and get them out of here!

The jackets were handprinted on the vandercook 219 in my office. Two colours, black and ‘wayzgoose red’ on a nice felt-finish ginger-coloured paper stock. The illustration is by out pal Wesley Bates of West Meadow Press in Clifford, Ontario, who also did illustrations for the other essay collections of Don’s we published.


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