Monday, March 09, 2015
In "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman invites readers to follow along enrapt as he tramps his perpetual journey; in Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself, Allen Crawford boldly reimagines the journey through color, image, and design in a book that fills the hand solidly but won't sit still.
You can't just sit and turn the page. Crawford's illustrations--or illuminations, as he calls them--are surrounded by Whitman's words, which snake sinuously about or march in sharp formation or float and bob like dandelion fluff through the air. A page might contain a half-dozen hand-lettered words or a hundred, and you may have to flip the book three or four different ways to follow the thread.
It's an infuriating book for anyone in a hurry, but Whitman Illuminated invites readers to lean and loaf at their ease, observing: a hand made of leaves, a head wrapped in barbed wire, a baby floating in space. Two snails mirror each other in a dance of passion; two hands play cat's cradle with fishing line dangling lures. Frogs, birds, bugs, hats, and faces of the many people whose lives Whitman subsumes--all appear in rich hues of midnight, grass, or brick.
Crawford's Foreword explains that he "tried to make the vigor of 'Song of Myself' tangible," to "liberate the words from their blocks of verse, and allow the lines to flow freely about the page, like a stream or a bustling city crowd." Crawford's expansive and detailed illustrations surge with life, pulsing with the procreant urge of the world and weaving word and image into a song of many selves. Reinterpreting such a sacred text requires a touch of hubris, but Crawford's work leads readers always back to Whitman's words by new, unexpected paths.
"At the close of 'Song of Myself,'" explains Crawford, "Whitman invites us to look for him under our boot-soles. Now that my work is done, it's my hope that you may also find a little of him under my pen."
(Find him here from Tin House Press--but be patient. I had to wait three months for my copy to arrive.)