It’s all in the touch, Janet Hughes

If to judge a book by its cover is folly, call me foolish. I have bought some just for their covers, others for their illustrations or their typography or even their title pages. Of course I treasure most the rare few that are beautiful in every aspect and worth reading but I can often afford to settle for partial pleasures, buying secondhand very cheaply. Most books of my collection were issued by ordinary commercial publishers in the first half of this century, not for the bibliophile but for the ordinary reader, to whom they were, I suppose, unremarkable. Now for similar aesthetic qualities in new books we have to turn to handprinted limited editions from the small presses, labour-intensive and necessarily expensive. We look to them for a perpetuation of traditional standards of book-craft but also for something more, something that ensures that rarity is more than a matter of numbers and expense.

These titles from the Holloway press are strictly for bibliophiles, being among the dearer hand-printed books in the market. Designed and printed by Alan Loney, they display the high standards we have learned to expect of him — nicely judged formats, elegant layout, subtle design, meticulous production standards. His use of colour, in inks, papers, covers and decoration, is as usual restrained yet vigorous. I find myself repeatedly reaching for some of these books for the sheer pleasure of looking and touching — and of reading, especially the Curnow and Smithyman volumes, in which the design elements work sweetly together and in intimate harmony with the spirit of the texts.

Kendrick Smithyman’s long poem, Tomarata, comes both cased and paperbound, in a long format which allows the numbered sections to be printed one to a page with generous margins. Electra is a typeface which can be downright ugly used heedlessly, but here its rather stern character is entirely in keeping with Smithyman’s tone. The cased version is printed in a strong greeny-blue on green-brown paper and numbered in red. The handmade paper is flecked and textured and takes a deep impression with a wonderfully tactile effect. This treatment is rich and earthy, bolder than the cool blue and cream of the limp-cover version and especially attuned to the poem’s swampy geography.

Allen Curnow’s Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Water is a beautiful little book, with hand-coloured covers. The poem is printed on the right-hand pages only, on a fine white mouldmade paper. The left-hand pages bear an exiguous decoration, a shaky line of red, set high and well off-centre. Aesthetically, it’s all of a piece: square format, square blocks of couplets; cool, aquatic colours; insistent horizontals suggesting water levels and the horizon, all energised by the splashes of scarlet. The delicate squareness of the whole design is echoed in the unexpected use of a “typewriter” face on the tiny spine — it’s a short poem — and the title page. Loney has a way of combining modern with older faces, surprisingly yet so persuasively that the conjunction looks inevitable.

Tomarata and Looking West are both speculative works by authors of high repute — uncontroversial choices of text, the former well-tried, the latter a safe bet. Each poem conveys a powerful sense of place, in an utterly distinctive voice; both are reinforced visually by the pertinence of Loney’s designs, the Curnow cool, littoral and airy, the Smithyman earthy, swampy, dense. They are not adventurous designs but perform subtle variations on trusted formulas, pushing the boundaries rarely and gently, appealing to a sense of traditional craft perfected. The disposition of purely typographic elements, especially on title pages, is particularly judicious, with unconventional touches governed by a conservative sense of composition.

The Holloway Press has an interesting history which bears on its output. It is a reincarnation of the Griffin Press, the equipment and archives of which Ronald and Kay Holloway gifted to Auckland University. Alan Loney is printer-manager and Peter Simpson of the English department is co-director. The academic connection is variously apparent in most of these volumes and its interests are served with varying degrees of success.

Some minor details of the Tomarata treatment are influenced by textual concerns: Smithyman’s typescript habits of numbering sections in red and of omitting spaces after commas and full stops are preserved. The former has proved a happy precedent, in harmony with the whole design, but the second tripped me up as I read and made the poem look slightly odd on the page. I see no good reason for perpetuating this quirk, especially given that it is adequately documented in the facsimile typescript pages which are included as illustrations. In this volume the scholarship is clearly an adjunct and, with the exception I’ve noted, not intrusive. Simpson’s brief and interesting history of the text is relegated to an “Afterword”. Learning and aesthetics cohabit happily.

Less so, I think, in Robin Hyde’s The Victory Hymn 1935-1995, another expensive cased volume. This book brings together seven variants of a poem which Hyde reworked so radically that the extant versions have only 14 lines in common and none can be regarded as definitive. Conventional collation of texts and a table of variants would be nonsensical here. Instead, the few lines in common are printed in a contrasting colour, an economical and effective solution, and the various versions of the poem are printed entire, interleaved with a critical essay by Michele Leggott. This is supposed to emphasise by demonstration the “distance between” the Hyde texts. I found it simply frustrated my reading of the essay and I am not convinced that many readers would take the intended point from the reading experience or that it is one that requires oblique demonstration. The purpose of problematising the notion of a copytext seems to me to have been accomplished by statement in the preface and by demonstration in the careful explanation of the various texts’ histories.

Neither am I persuaded the hand-made treatment is entirely justified for this project. It has its origins in the Griffin Press archives, which included galleys and the standing type of one version of the poem, never actually published. Printing this as it stood, with the title set crookedly and a redundant heading, has a kind of archaeological value but it seems all out of keeping with the presentation — rich red boards, gold stamping, elegant title-page and striking frontispiece — as does the bitty, crowded appearance of many pages.

A postmodern agenda is revealed at the very end of the essay. We’re told: “In her persistent tinkering with textual detail Hyde is an unwitting precursor of contemporary resistance to the monologic text.” This book, according to Leggott, represents the “luxury of refusing a singular copytext”, a luxury soon to be “democratised” by CD-ROM technology. In the meantime I would have thought that a more democratic medium than hand printing might have represented an intelligent compromise. And I doubt that you can democratise limited-edition buyers by frustrating their taste for good-looking pages.

The two Helen Shaw collections are also resurrected Griffin Press typesettings. The hard-bound Leda’s Daughter is a small, handsome book, a happy collaboration between poet, printer and illustrator (Vanya Lowry). The poems look stunning on the page, blue on cream, balanced against the small red illustrations. I can’t get excited by the fact that the silver cover decoration is printed from a cypress sprig Helen Shaw picked at Menton, but it looks well enough and the whole book amounts to a good deal more than the sum of its parts. This is just as well; I can enjoy the volume, even though I don’t much care for either the poems or the drawings in themselves.

The ferocious spiky black-letter face chosen for On A Dark Mirror and the red cover and decorations are perfectly suited to these “romance” poems about Germanic tales of chivalry. Again the spacious pages look splendid. But nothing could redeem lines like “Have we forced down this archetype/ to a cave of sleep,” or “The chivalrous Knights joust on/ through fantasies” to the extent that I would voluntarily re-read them.

Wystan Curnow’s Castor Bay: pictures and proses transgresses various boundaries — those dividing poetry and prose conventions, public and private territory, art and life, formal and casual registers, lyrical and banal utterance — disconcertingly and inventively. The visual treatment is just right, with layout and minimal graphics (“pictures” is pushing it) nicely suited to the text and to the special capabilities of letterpress. I’ve even begun to enjoy the op-shop-cardigan green cover and have forgiven the text its occasional descents into banality. May No 1 of the Holloway Press poetry series have many successors.

This is the kind of thing — unconventional work with an integral visual component — which private presses can do extremely well. And just such an emphasis dominates Holloway’s list of forthcoming titles: The Dogs of Auckland (poem by Robert Creeley, drawings by Max Gimblett); The Love Songs of Ibykos (translated by Ted Jenner, illustrated by John Reynolds); and Leo Bensemann’s picture-book, Fantastica. There is also a scholarly interest in the history of New Zealand printing (Bensemann) and in literary by-ways — Annie and Harold Beauchamp’s Shipboard Diary, and another Robin Hyde critical edition by Leggott.

Holloway’s design and production standards are generally impressive but I have to question the use of Canson Mi-teintes for covers and endpapers. Aesthetically the choice is usually sound, though its otherwise agreeable texture can look unduly mechanical when Canson endpapers are combined with handmade paper (the Curnow and Smithyman volumes). More seriously, I doubt from experience that this paper is sufficiently durable for cover use. It fingermarks easily and quickly develops shiny patches and furry edges and corners with handling.

Also, particularly in the stronger colours, it fades notoriously quickly. It would be difficult to match this range of rich, subtle colours, which Holloway has put to beautiful use, from any single source and at reasonable prices, but I think alternatives should be explored. So much of the pleasure of fine books is tactile and it would be bitterly disappointing to find that ordinary careful handling quickly damaged one’s expensive treasure or that its vivid cover faded quickly without undue exposure to light.

Janet Hughes is a Wellington writer.

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