[ Cover ]
Reviewed by Calum Rodger
Contrary to popular wisdom, you can tell a lot about a book by its cover. At the very least, you can tell that it’s a book. Without a cover, a book is just a stack of papers waiting to be blown away by the wind. Only a cover makes a book comprehensible as such. It gives form, limits, identity. It makes the book an object, makes it discrete. A book without a cover is unimaginable, because a book without a cover is not a book.
So too with people. As Amy Todman’s [ Cover ] suggests,the individual also needs a cover. This has little to do with the social duplicity of presenting a ‘front’. As a book has a cover on both sides (and a spine), so for Todman the individual’s cover is the means to interact with others, to create and sustain relationships, and to arrive at self-understanding. Her remarkable book explores this syntax with a quiet grace and deeply moving candour.
That said, the cover of [ Cover ] doesn’t give too much away. It is certainly no ordinary paperback. Made from rich blue card stock, printed with the title and author’s name in an unassuming Roman typeface, it is at once more subtle and more tactile, possessing of a discreet discreteness. A glance at its contents bears out this impression: fragmentary sentences set sparsely on the white page, interspersed with extended quotations, little poems and longer ‘silences’, in turn offset by occasional drawings and watercolours that give body to the unfolding narrative. Designed by Rachel Barron and Nathan Clydesdale, it has a warmth, fragility and tactile directness that set its tone and measure out the care of its composition. More than a book, it is a thing of subtle beauty.
It is not only an object, however, but a record. As the inside cover tells us, [ Cover ] ‘is an attempt to describe a particular period of time. It spans several years in the life of a woman, during which her father was diagnosed with and died from cancer of the prostrate and bone’. Perhaps, then, the book’s beauty is a ‘cover’, for the intensity of feeling that wells up, despite itself, in its pages?
Beginning with ‘one moment remembered’ – the protagonist sewing a cover for a stone she has found on the island of Hoy, in Orkney – the book comprises ‘a series of fragments, conversations, requests and reflections.’ The covering of the stone thus catalyses a story of further objects, further coverings, realised in the human relations and considerations that play out around them. Together, they describe ‘something of the gap he left but also of the life lived around his leaving.’ But the covered stone is not so much a camouflage for the ‘gap he left’ as an embodiment of the human values – faith, love – which infuse a ‘life lived’ and make grief bearable (indeed, possible). It is not a mark of separation so much as a gathering in, a patchwork.
This feeling is brought home by the main narrative device in the book, by which all the players are represented by a single letter of the alphabet. This makes it difficult to establish how the other characters – many of whom only appear once or twice throughout the book’s four parts – are related to the protagonist, named only ‘B’. A decisive exception comes early: ‘B goes to visit E and F and continues to make objects / B loves E and F / F is dying.’ Knowing what we know between the covers, we immediately read F as the father. By association, we also read E as the mother (an expectation confirmed later, when E’s voice describes her late initiation into the joys of drawing). Mother and father, like the other human agents in the book, are presented as alphabetic ‘objects’, but despite this distancing effect, the two are recognisable by virtue of the syntax that connects them to B, adhering through that crucial verb ‘love’. Here, the beauty of the book’s design – the initials presented in a delicately emboldened typeface, each sentence organically set on the page – makes this relationship more palpably felt, giving its ‘love’ more space to resonate.
In this way the book’s aesthetic subtlety is mirrored in the compositional subtlety of its syntax, finding a tentative repose among people, objects and feelings that ultimately brings some quiet resolution to the expansive ‘gap[s]’ between its fragments. Most of the narrative, especially in the later sections, describes B’s drawing class. Its attendees draw B’s objects and, in working through their own impressions, alter the syntax of B’s relation to them. Moreover, several contribute their own ‘objects’ to the book itself – whether paintings or passages from other texts – so that the personalities of those linguistic place-markers shine through, ‘objectified’ in paintings and literature. O, for example, comes across as particularly charming and good-humoured, partly by means of the A.A. Milne poem with which she is associated, and it is to this character that B confesses ‘that the distance in the work is to do with a distance that she needed to create around strong feelings’. That distance finds its paradoxical complement in the ‘presence’ of the object, and the art making process – of responding to objects and gathering impressions – acts as an ameliorative, a way of resolving the twin impossibilities of direct emotional expression and the dumb security of stones.
The dramatic climax comes towards the end of part three, a volta suspended across eight heartrending pages. The father’s voice emerges in B’s lyric poem (‘the colours on your shirt are beautiful’), only to be juxtaposed with the book’s characteristic matter-of-fact but dislocated diction two leaves later, in the naked proposition ‘F has died’. An arresting double page is given over to F’s silence, but it is preceded by a bright watercolour of an autumn leaf – whose orange brushstrokes suggest the animacy of a frail flame – and a covered stone. According to the acknowledgements, the artist is John Todman – the father. Where voice fails, the object and, what is more important, an individual’s impression of it, remains. So too do lives lived stay with us as impressions, memories. The colours of a shirt remarked upon at the kitchen table; a painting of a leaf; a cover for a stone: all are beautiful, and remain so.
As such, the object is always only half the story. Late in the narrative, B realises that ‘The object had taken on its own life after being created through A’s initial faith in B’, recognising that ‘A’s faith was perhaps more important than the actual object.’ Faith is the key. Like love before it, faith is an adhesive; like the act of drawing or painting, it animates, brings the object into the world of human relations. [ Cover ] reduces its people to alphabetic characters thereby presenting them as objects, and in so doing lays bare the syntax that produces this life-giving potential in the first place. Without faith – in life and in the life of objects – these relations, nor our impressions and memories of the content that fills them, could exist at all.
[ Cover ] is an attempt to work through what it describes as ‘the question of being present or emotional in writing rather than more distanced’. Rather than resigning into disassociation, it uses the presence of objects as a surrogate for the presence of the psychological self. In so doing, it discovers that no object – and no person – is present to us without a ‘cover’ of some kind. It is through this cover that we come to know ourselves, and achieve a resolution which must, by definition, be more emotional than objective. The book’s epigraph comes from Louise Bourgeois: ‘Everything comes to you from the other’. The object is other, and therein we find ourselves. [ Cover ] is one such object, inviting us into this relation. As readers who are moved by it, so too can we share in its faith.
by Amy Todman is published by Brae Editions, designed by Rachel Barron and Nathan Clydesdale.
Calum Rodger is a poet and PhD student at the University of Glasgow, studying the poetics of Ian Hamilton Finlay.