Simon Armitage on Ukraine: a new acquisition

Private press books have been acquired by the Library since the late nineteenth century, when William Morris’s Kelmscott Press (active 1891-98) led to the flourishing of artisanal and artistic printing. Morris’s desire, and that of those who followed him, was to produce handmade books which emphasized design, typography, paper, artwork and fine bindings, features generally lacking at that time in the mass-market production of books. Private press books were often printed in limited editions and might come with features which made them desirable to collectors. The latest example in our collection comes from the Solmentes Press, based in Decorah (Iowa, USA), the private press of artist David Esslemont.

Covers: the Sunflower (the Ukrainian national flower) imposed over Vladimir Putin

It contains the text of a poem written by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, inspired by the dreadful news in February 2022 around the Russian invasion of Ukraine. His poem, which responded to ‘what is coming at us in obscene images through the news’ is titled ‘Resistance’ and first appeared in The Guardian newspaper. By way of showing solidarity with the people of Ukraine, Esslemont created this illustrated edition of the poem in book form to highlight the awful recurrent and ubiquitous nature of war, its visceral calligraphy and choice of images reflecting the unimaginable consequences and folly of it.

The illustrations, a couple of which can be seen above and below, combine montages of manipulated contemporary and archive photographs with Esslemont’s own drawings and images. The calligraphic words are drawn from not only the poem but also a number of other sources (transcripts of Pathé newsreels, Putin’s declaration of his mission written in Russian, the Ukrainian national anthem, news headlines, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech to the British parliament). Above we see a Ukrainian tractor pulling a broken-down Russian tank, a powerful image, combined with a list of wars waged across the world in the last two thousand years. Below, a line from Armitage’s poem – It’s the ceasefire hour: godspeed the columns of winter coats and fur-lined hoods – is seen over an image of Ukrainian refugees fleeing their country at the tail end of winter.

The poem ends (below) on a hopeful note, the bells of Kyiv’s cathedral ringing out over the text of a speech by the Ukrainian President. Just thirty copies of this edition have been printed, of which ours is number 22, presented in a cloth box and accompanied by a description of the imagery seen alongside the words of the poem. It is now ready to be consulted in the Rare Books Room at the shelfmark Syn.3.202.1 by anyone with a valid readers’ card. Solmentes Press will donate 5% of net sales to Ukraine TrustChain whose teams are helping families in Ukraine. For those wishing to learn more about Ukrainian books in the Library, and to hear about relevant events taking place in Cambridge, do follow the European languages across borders blog.

Note: images and descriptive text taken from the Solmentes Press website are used by the kind permission of David Esslemont.

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