How odd. I had only just posted Jen Hadfield’s poem Paternoster in my last post when I picked up a call from the Poetry Library in London. More than a year ago, I asked them if they could obtain a copy of The Printer’s Devil & The Little Bear, an Arts Council collaboration between Jen Hadfield and Ursula Freeman to produce a letterpress portfolio of illustrated poems. After all these months, I had given up on it. Then, out of the blue, the call came.
Today, I finally got the opportunity to look at this rare and beautiful portfolio.
As I waited for the librarian to fetch it from the rare books collection, I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed. I needn’t have worried. The portfolio arrived in its shale coloured hessian cover, fastened with two polished wooden beads and lined with paper based on Jen’s linocuts. Inside, a pile of loose leaves on thick paper.
The first page explained the project. Jen had a passion to learn letterpress so she contacted Ursula at Redlake Press. For two months, Jen set type and operated the Vandercook proofing press. In August 2006, the 29 pages of the portfolio were printed at the Redlake press at Clun in Shropshire on Somerset paper. The pages are unbound to allow the reader to rearrange them, study them, pin them on the wall or read aloud.
The finished result is exquisite. I felt privileged to be turning the pages. Each one shows a different way of presenting poems and combining them with illustration. Although Jen’s photos are gorgeous, I love her linocuts even more: a fern, a fisherman, an insect, a mousetrap, a little black dipper, a gorgeous rust-red kitchen whisk. Her poems conjure a luminous natural world, and a domestic world that is, all the time, tending back towards the wild. The words ping and pang off the page, scored in one poem for an imaginary mandolin.
I tried to copy down some of my favourite lines:
‘the forest all dusky and woolly and luminous, like static electricity on a stroked cat’,
‘offering herself the fruit,/ on her way to the compost / as if she were the horse’,
and the caught fish, ‘lip hung with blood/and the bright, brutal jewellery.’
But my favourite poem is of the violent awakening of a winter landscape. The linocut is almost abstract – a line, a blue hill, a few mustard splodges that could be trees. The unevenness of the print looks like sunlight on the wintry trees and the white page becomes the snowfield gradually breaking up into her ink marks as spring’s ‘claws shoot out/from the buried bear.’
I was sad to reach the end of this treasure. Back it went to the rare books collection. Only 30 copies of The Printer’s Devil were printed, of which this was No. 6. Jen Hadfield’s signature confirmed it.