Edinburgh’s Makar, Christine De Luca writes for ELISA – Part 2: Mysterious Book Sculptures

During this month ELISA is privileged to present a series of three guest posts by Edinburgh’s Maker, Christine De Luca. In Part 2 Christine relates the wonderful story of the Mysterious Edinburgh Book Sculptures…

Story-telling Centre - Dragon’s Nest
Story-telling Centre – Dragon’s Nest

Edinburgh is a city of libraries and organisations which support literature. Libraries are particularly under threat as we become ever more digitised and funding is spread more thinly. The book sculptures were made as gifts in appreciation of libraries, books, words, ideas and placed anonymously, without anyone being aware of the donor, to be uncovered unexpectedly. Surely a perfect gift? At the Conrad Festival [in Kraków, Poland] I was able to show images of the paper sculptures and explain the references to poems hidden within a few of the loveliest.

Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature - ‘Lost in a good book’
Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature – ‘Lost in a good book’

In 2011, the first mystery paper sculpture was discovered in that home of poetry, the SPL. It was an incredibly delicate gift; a tree (PoeTREE) growing out of a book, an eggshell of poems, and a little card which read:

Scottish Poetry Library -PoeTREE
Scottish Poetry Library – PoeTREE

@ByLeavesWeLive and became a tree…We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books…a book is so much more than pages full of words…This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas…

The leaves referred to the motto of SPL (by Leaves we Live) but the sculpture also referenced one of Scotland’s great 20th poets, Edwin Morgan. The broken egg is LINED with lines from a tribute poem he wrote on the death of a friend, the Modernist poet Basil BUNTING. The poem is a play on his friend’s surname:

Edwin Morgan

Corn Bunting            shy but perky; haunts fields; grain-scatterer

Reed Bunting            sedge-scuttler; swayer; a cool perch

Cirl Bunting              small whistler; shrill early; find him!

Indigo Bunting         blue darter; like metal; the sheen

Ortolan Bunting       haunts gardens; is caught; favours tables

Painted Bunting       gaudy flasher; red, blue, green; what a whisk!

Snow Bunting           Arctic flyer; ghost-white; blizzard-hardened

Basil Bunting!           the sweetest singer; prince of finches; gone from these parts


Others were then discovered in major libraries and literary institutions. There was one, for example for each of:

Edinburgh Book Festival - teacup
Edinburgh Book Festival – teacup
  • the Story-telling Centre – “Dragon’s Nest”
  • the Edinburgh International Book Festival – a presentation teacup which says in the swirl of milk ‘Nothing beats a nice cup of tea (or coffee) and a great BOOK’.   But beside the cake it says ‘except maybe a cake as well!’
  • Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature  – “Lost in a good book”
  • Edinburgh Filmhouse  – “all things magic” … with the film coming alive ‘out of a book’… and with a tiny Ian Rankin, the sculptor’s favorite Edinburgh author, seated in the cinema!
8 Filmhouse cinema
Edinburgh Filmhouse – “all things magic”

The tenth and seemingly final sculpture (Gloves of bee’s fur, cap of the wren’s wings) was another for the SPL.  It was a most exquisitely made sculpture, based on a line in a poem by another of Scotland’s great poets of the 20th century, Norman MacCaig. This poem, Gifts – a beautifully crafted, restrained love poem – is about impossible gifts! It’s from the collection (The Sinai Sort, The Hogarth Press, 1957). It is impeccably rhymed and the rhythm is memorable. It almost hurts to read the pain and extremity of love in it:

Norman MacCaig

You read the old Irish poet and complain
I do not offer you impossible things –
Gloves of bees’ fur, cap of the wren’s wings,
Goblets so clear light falls on them like a stain.
I make you the harder offer of all I can,
The good and ill that make of me this man.

I need no fancy to mark you as beautiful,
If you are beautiful. All I know is what
Darkens and brightens the sad waste of my thought
Is what makes me your wild, truth-telling fool
Who will not spoil your power by adding one
Vainglorious image to all we’ve said and done.

Flowers need no fantasy, stones need no dream;
And you are flower, and stone. And I compel
Myself to be no more than possible,
Offering nothing that might one day seem
A measure of your failure to be true
To the greedy vanity that disfigures you.

A cloak of the finest silk in Scotland – what
Has that to do with troubled nights and days
Of anguished happiness? I had no praise
Even of your kindness, that was not bought
At such a price this bankrupt self is all
I have to give. And is that possible?

SPL - Gloves of bee’s fur, cap of the wren’s wings
SPL – Gloves of bee’s fur, cap of the wren’s wings

We thought that was it but, since then, there have been more and more; three recently with the theme Free to Fly’ including one more for the SPL and one more for the UNESCO City of Literature Trust. All are exquisitely crafted and include rich references to the body receiving the anonymous gift. They have been created with care and love. They celebrate more than the tangible word: they commend our values, our hopes and dreams; our belief in the transformative power of books, of literature.

Gifted: The fascinating tale of ten mysterious book sculptures gifted to the city of words and ideas
Gifted: The fascinating tale of ten mysterious book sculptures gifted to the city of words and ideas

Do seek them out!

There is a beautiful, well-illustrated book written about them by Robyn Marsack, Director of the Scottish Poetry Library (SPL).  Appropriately titled ‘GiftED’, it was published by Polygon in 2012.

Be sure to watch out for the final instalment in this series – Part 3: The Great Polish Map of Scotland, next week…

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