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Lagniappes

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Memorial card for Irish patriot Patrick Pearse’s mother. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

LOST AND FOUND BETWEEN THE PAGES

It is early September 2002, and behind the thick puddingstone walls of the Burns library, Kathaleen Brearley, an assistant rare books cataloguer, opens a slim volume of poetry to begin her usual painstaking examination and notations. The book is a well-preserved but ordinary-enough 1931 edition of the poems of one Christy MacKaye, a name that rings no bells for Brearley. Nor is it clear, at first glance, why the book has found its way to her hands. The reason becomes plain on the title page, where, in an elegant, backward-leaning script, the author has penned, "To Lady Gregory with sincere regards." The book is what is known in the trade as a "presentation copy," that is, a copy inscribed by the author. But in this case, it is the recipient, not the author, who is famous. By virtue of belonging to Lady Gregory, a key figure in the Irish Revival and the cofounder with W.B. Yeats of Dublin's Abbey Theatre, this obscure volume has a rightful place at Burns, the home of one of the world's outstanding collections of Irish and Irish-American manuscripts and books.

But the book holds a secret—or an unexpected gift, at any rate—in the form of an envelope, stuck between the leaves, addressed to Lady Gregory at her home in Coole Park in Galway, postmarked August 28, 1931. Contained within is a heartfelt thank-you note to Lady Gregory from Christy MacKaye: "This is very late to let you know how much it meant to both Miss Buckles and myself to come and see you. It was wonderfully kind of you to let us. Certainly it was a climax of good fortune to meet Mr. Yeats there too." At Burns, such "climax of good fortune" as finding this simple fragment of past society is not a daily occurrence, but it happens sometimes.

John Atteberry, senior reference librarian at Burns, once discovered, tucked in a newly acquired book, a press ticket to a Yale-Dartmouth football game from 1933, bearing notice that only men would be admitted in the press box. (He kindly sent it off to the library at Dartmouth, receiving word back that, on that date, "Yale prevailed.") He also happened on three beautiful, anonymous, and undated red crayon drawings of flowers folded into the pages of a 16th-century book on gardening, a sort of early House and Garden complete with etchings of horticultural schemes, garden tools, and flora. And on the title page of a biography of Jack Yeats, the eminent artist and brother of W.B., Atteberry found the profoundest kind of signature, a small sketch of a horse, done in light blue, by Jack Yeats himself—the artist's touch, an alchemy that turned book into personal artifact. The writer's hand similarly transforms a plain green presentation copy of the 1949 edition of The Complete Poems of Robert Frost. Frost inscribed the volume to the late Arthur MacGillivray, SJ, who wrote poetry and taught English at Boston College. But what makes this book more special is that it contains a six-line poem that Frost wrote out and initialed in his own bold, blocky hand.

David Horn, head librarian for archives and manuscripts, was stunned when he discovered the lines. "First thought," he recalls, "was, ‘I wonder if this is an unpublished poem,'" which would have been a fabulous find. Frost happens to be Horn's favorite poet, and as Horn read on, the lines had a familiar ring:

But God's own descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
In substantiation.

Further investigation revealed them to be from the long poem "Kitty Hawk," published in Frost's In the Clearing in 1962. Curiously, the handwritten lines in the copy were given a title of their own—"The Risk"—which they do not have in the longer poem. The subject is decidedly theological, says Horn: "He's talking about the risk the divinity took coming down and becoming flesh." Looking at those carefully penned black lines, it is impossible not to feel that Frost selected them and their title quite deliberately for the message they would bear to Fr. MacGillivray.

Archivist Ed Copenhagen with his find, Gregory Corso’s Madonna. By Gary Wayne GilbertRecently, assistant archivist Ed Copenhagen has been going through the papers of the late Francis Sweeney, SJ, who for many years ran BC's Humanities Lecture Series, and who was a friend and correspondent of many prominent writers. Because, as Copenhagen puts it, Fr. Sweeney's views of literature were "a little more modern," Copenhagen was not entirely surprised to find a letter from the eccentric Beat poet Gregory Corso, whom Sweeney invited to speak at the University in the 1970s. However, what accompanied the letter was quite unexpected: a large pencil drawing by Corso titled Finite Madonna, Infinite Child, which, despite containing some aspects of a traditional Madonna and Child, casts a decidedly quirky spin on the subject. (Around the edge of the infant's face, for example, are numbers as they would appear on a clock face, except that "12" has been replaced by the infinity symbol.)

Some of the odd detritus that is serendipitously retrieved by Burns's cataloguers and librarians requires historical context for its meaning to be understood. An item that is relatively insignificant in itself but conveys a particularly vivid sense of the past, in part because of its very plainness, was discovered by a BC student who was going through a cache of Irish books that the library had purchased a while back. In one unremarkable volume the student found a small holy card issued for the 1932 funeral of a Mrs. Margaret Pearse. Burns's librarians were able to identify her as the mother of Patrick Pearse, poet, school teacher, and hero of the Irish rebellion of 1916, who was executed for signing the Irish declaration of independence, along with all the other signatories. Pearse was a young man when he was killed. The expression of unutterable sadness on Mrs. Pearse's face in the tiny photograph that graces the black and white card tells a mother's, and a country's, tragedy.

Among the unexpected finds at Burns, some are valuable, such as the extremely rare prayer card—two by three inches and still white—that Jesuitana cataloguer Ross Shanley-Roberts found in a 349-year-old religious daybook last fall. And some have no discernable value at all, such as an anonymous sheaf of notes in French, written in miniscule script on tissue-thin paper, discovered in a 1949 book about the exercises of St. Ignatius.

As a rule, found items of any value at all are catalogued and reassigned to an appropriate BC collection. But the unattributed and abandoned French scribblings, perhaps the diligence of a reviewer, perhaps the research of a scholar, have been allowed to remain tucked into the book where they were found. What librarian, after all, could throw away evidence of such attention to the word?

Susan Miller


Susan Miller is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Photos (from top):

Memorial card for Irish patriot Patrick Pearse’s mother. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

Archivist Ed Copenhagen with his find, Gregory Corso’s Madonna. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

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