Two handmade Shipley books honor writing and farming

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Woodcuts by Mary Simpson illustrate Adam’s Mark; Writing from the Ox-House.
Woodcuts by Mary Simpson illustrate Adam’s Mark; Writing from the Ox-House.

copyright the Chronicle September 3, 2014

Adam’s Mark: Writing from the Ox-House, published by Plowboy Press in Burke, with woodcuts by Mary Simpson. A limited edition hard cover version is available directly from the publisher for $250. A smaller softcover trade copy, 54 pages, is $12. First Do No Harm, by Honeybee Press in Burlington and New Orleans, Lousiana, 48 pages, softcover, $15. Both published in 2014, both written by Julia Shipley. Both available locally at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick.

Reviewed by Bethany M. Dunbar

Wesley Langdell’s barn and paddock are across the street from the Morrisville Price Chopper. He sold his southern hayfield in the early sixties to developers who built the Ames Plaza, Price Chopper and McDonald’s. I gaze at his place from the parking lot where I shop because I cherish things that are about to vanish.

So opens Adam’s Mark, Writing from the Ox-House, by Craftsbury writer Julia Shipley.  It is a book about writing and farming, and it’s printed and published in an old-fashioned way that — far from vanishing — seems to be making an upstart come back.

Ms. Shipley’s two new books have been printed carefully, thoughtfully, and by hand. Plowboy Press is a publishing company in Burke, created by Andrew Miller-Brown, who learned his trade from printmaker and artist Claire Van Vliet.

Honeybee Press is the creation of poet Ben Aleshire, who started a cooperative to make books, and a magazine called The Salon: A Journal of Poetry and Fiction, by hand. The stated goals of Honeybee Press are to empower authors by helping them make their books from the paper on up, with letter press printing, hand-sewing and binding.

A measure of the success of these enterprises was the size of a crowd that turned out to hear Ms. Shipley talk about her new books and meet these publishers. The event was at the Galaxy Bookshop August 12, where she read some of her work. The place was packed — standing room only.

Ms. Shipley’s poetry is kind of like Bread and Puppet’s “cheap art” in that it’s poetry for the masses. It’s for farmworkers and people who have relationships and who look at cornfields.

From First Do No Harm:

 

Two Eggs

 

This one the color

of my shoulder in winter,

& this one, my shoulder in summer.

 

No seam, no pock no

porthole, smooth as oil.

 

The surface curve:

just a tip & a buttock

 

silent as a horn in the trunk.

How many times can we give

 

what’s formed inside us?

Never? Always? Once?

 

I keep running my hands over this book because I enjoy the texture of it so much. It makes me want to write more poetry and make paper out of old blue jeans and print books myself.

WEB shipley firstRegular Chronicle readers and Shipley fans will recognize some of the verses in here, as a few of them appeared in her first chapbook, called Herd. Ms. Shipley had no part in choosing a photo for the cover of that small book. The photo chosen was of a factory farm-sized herd of cows in a Midwestern feedlot. Her disappointment in the choice of cover photo was part of the inspiration for wanting to make a book whose cover better reflected what is inside.

You can judge these two new books by their covers.

Adam’s Mark, Writing from the Ox-House, has no words at all on its front or back cover and just a few on the binding.  Its design is simple and beautiful.  The cover is red and shows part of a barn. Inside are poems and essays:

 

I fell in love with a dairy farmer.  Like a duck that had fallen for a camel, I despaired as I stood inside the shed I had rented for a writing studio while I watched him mow, ted and bale hay in the field beyond the window:  what on earth could we share?

But take the letter A and tip it over.  There, do you see it? That familiar cow-like face girded by two horns? There’s your ox. Aleph is ancient Hebrew for the beast that pulls the plow, and is now the boss cow of a herd of twenty-six letters.

And then, for this next one, use your imagination: B derives from Hebrew for house or beth. Put A and B together (A+B) and you’ve got: aleph-beth.

And there I am, standing in the shed of language, amid letters ready as tools hung on timbers, gradually discovering that the word alphabet essentially means ox-house or barn.

 

I have a lot of books, too many. They are everywhere in my house. I like walking by them on their shelves, pulling them out, thinking of great characters and plots I have known. But the truth is, most of these books I read only once. I just seem to lean toward spending the time I have to read, reading something new.

The exceptions are certain volumes of poetry and essays I go back to time after time. Old friends I like to pull out for a moment to revisit here and there. You don’t have to read a whole book of poetry in a sitting. You can find that one great poem or essay and reabsorb it. The Vermonters I reread the most are David Budbill, Leland Kinsey, Paul Lefebvre, and Julia Shipley. These are writers whose work I treasure for its solid nature and for how it can mean something new to me a year later. These are books I go back to time after time.

I’m thrilled to be able to add Ms. Shipley’s two new books to my collection.

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