On 'The Big Book of Homelessness'
People who have experienced homelessness have collaborated to make a medieval-style illuminated manuscript, based upon The Book of Hours, describing their daily lives.
A Book of Ours was handmade in Manchester, England 2019–21 by over one hundred people with lived the experience of homelessness, or at risk of homelessness. The project was devised and directed by poet Philip Davenport and visual artist Lois Blackburn, who work together as arthur+martha.
Significant events, celebrations, memorials document these hugely individual lives, in a large visual-poetic work by people who don’t appear in official histories. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, as an acknowledgement of homeless heritage. It follows The Homeless Library (2016) the first history of British homelessness — handmade books inscribed with firsthand accounts. A Book of Ours was partnered by support organisations, the Booth Centre and Back on Track, where workshops were established. Pages from the book debut at Bury Art Museum on May 18, 2021.
What follows is an exploratory description of a single page (above) in A Book of Ours.
Help is too big to put in words
On this page the man in the moon fills up the entire space of an arched pane, with three stars just below and to the right of the face. The base of the window is a quatrain, while two of its lines and a third, “Mum and dad and me,” follow the contour of the arch, at the top of which stands the phrase “myself to get off drugs.” All text is calligraphy — elegant and archaic; the “H” of “Help” coloured in purple and gold adopts the large decorated initial found in illuminated manuscripts. The text is written in green — a colour that among the makers of A Book of Ours often signifies woods and parks, but also new starts and new growth: the monumental cathedral window appears in the colour of natural cycles. Outside the arch, up and to the left, five stars in celebratory, spiritual, “universal” gold receive the gaze of the man in the moon and accentuate the presence of the three small stars below the face; the two groups of stars frame the face and really the entire page as an index of cosmic perspective. The artist drew the moon in graphite pencil, which also may be layering his image of himself, in black, the makers’ colour for the everyday world. This image tyrannizes the space of the arch: crude, grotesque, sinister, yet strangely Halloween-esque. A longer, less anxious view, however, reveals something more like Blake’s Tyger not bent on “evil,” or Frankenstein’s creation that is hopeful and anticipates acceptance. It is scary only to one encountering the other of homelessness as unknown and previously invisible. The moon reflects light; does it also give back the self-portrait of the artist? The monumentality of aristocratic art in gold and green together with the contrasting and uncomfortable black outlines of the countenance, itself carved like a jack-o-lantern out of a pumpkin, hurls that countenance outside any culturally familiar frame. Conversely, crude, marginal humanity, isolated or homeless, “occupies” an illegitimate space. A ruled line, a threshold between word and image that Lois Blackburn had drawn, at once establishes the two separate domains which, however, the visual poet has transgressed: text bubbles up vertically from the ledge, and like a gas conforms to the contours of the arch.
What is help? The makers around the worktable were writing their versions of “Suffrages,” the section of The Book of Hours devoted to the Saints, or people who offer help. Figures from “My Mum” to an English teacher to “St. Jimi Hendrix” are invoked as givers of “inner strength” and “confidence,” and then of reflection, hope, light, and liberty: they “walk through a burning door, without a care,” “your outstretched hand / Bring[s] light to mind.” “From darkness the lightning strikes light / Power and agility unchain your liberty.” “An English teacher taught me to write without fear.”
“Help” coexists in many forms around the trestle tables; here much personal fragility is at stake. “To write without fear”: some of the makers feel a particular stress in writing, the central activity, along with design work, in the group; the shame that some people feel at having lived the experience of homeless must kick in precisely at the moment of writing about it which is also the point at which art-as-distraction becomes, through the help of leaders and other makers, art as articulation of reflection, desire, and hope. At this moment of writing unique lives begin to coexist with other lives. The writer, also the artist, of “Help is too big to put in words” wanted to remain anonymous. In making the visual element, he began with the moon and then the stars. He left the project before completing the cosmic element of his design: Lois, picking up on the bright stars in the upper left, augmented the heavenly domain with more stars and deep blue. She also had pencilled a template for the page, marking out the space for the quatrain and the image of the moon. Gary, a volunteer with a graphic design background, illustrated the sumptuous “H,” and Lois did the scribing of the quatrain “on behalf of” the anonymous poet. Commissioning becomes a form of collective artistic practice: I will do some of the work on your behalf . . , but, says Lois, “we are always checking where the power is,” making sure that no one’s authority gets usurped by another’s, and that each participant “gets to shine.” Some of the lines of the poem are transferred by other makers, out of context, into the days of the Calendar (based upon the Calendar in The Book of Hours, with its daily prayers marking the seasons). This process of creative coexistence, the making of “ours,” confers on the makers pride, pleasure, and inspiration.
“Syntax … is the arrangement of the army. As we move away from it, we demilitarize it” (John Cage). Except for the aphoristic first line of the quatrain, repeated in the fourth, none of the lines of text comprises a sentence that, when following its grammatical and syntactical rules, completes an action or acknowledges a condition of being. For people with lived experience of homelessness, completion and fulfilment may be a fantasy of their reality, while the clipping of a sentence into fragments or shall we call them demilitarized wholes, projects its essential, crucial content, as in a dream (just like the countenance comes forward undiluted), occupying the syntax of power:
Mum and dad and me
myself to get off drugs
Naked in a big world
The workspace, four trestle tables linked in a long row, is littered with large sheets of paper, markers and pens, paints, rulers, but also a scattering of “sacred texts”: The Book of Common Prayer, Hildegard of Bingen, Blake’s Illuminated Plates: all on the same plane of intention: reading great works, repurposing them, writing out of them and into one’s own life. Phil Davenport calls the workspace “our scriptorium” invoking a medieval site of manuscript production with poets, artists, calligraphers, and musicians collectively labouring on the artwork. The Booth Centre encourages art practice as part of the process of finding oneself again in the midst of a life of chaos and vulnerability (which takes many diverse, often contradictory, shapes). The art room, on the second floor of the Centre, provides space for distraction from troubled environments. The arthur+martha projects that occur within the art room distracts but takes distraction to a new level, promoting reflection, singly and collectively among makers, about one’s life; it channels creative activity outward: no surprise that this page, “Help is too big to put in words,” looks out the window of an unseen room and finds a reality untouched by the constraints of daily life, framed not by markers of neoliberal insult but by moon and stars. And yet … the moon’s teeth remind me suddenly of my own observations of people asking for money, seated on cardboard, along Byres Road (Glasgow) pavement: bad teeth. It’s shocking and dismaying to see decaying teeth in often attractive young people: a sign that nothing covers up in them a process of the disintegration of the human face when society refuses to arrest it — and perhaps a revelation before my eyes of something “elemental” about human vulnerability which neoliberalism tries relentlessly to deny. Yet the artist shows the man in the moon with bad teeth: what a cosmic affront to respectability!
For almost a decade, Sean sat on the Byres Road pavement by a British Red Cross store front. I stopped every few days for a chat that would either produce an account of a recent ailment, usually of vitamin deficiency or circulation problems in his legs, and trips to the hospital, or acute observations on sun, cloud, and wind patterns along with precise descriptions of horizons as seen from his seat. He said that he was descended from an accomplished painter in the well-known school of artists called the “Glasgow Boys,” whose work is on permanent display in Glasgow. Sean had terrible teeth. Several months ago (late 2020), I passed by Sean’s spot only to find a cardboard box full of cut flowers and notes. He was dead. No one could tell me what had happened to him. After a week the flowers had faded and then the box disappeared. Vanished: the precariousness of a life, a friendship. Death hovers around this page. In the Book of Ours calendar for February it is said: “Death rushes into the Church.” Joan said to me, “I have now outlived my mother,” and Lawrence said: “I was supposed to die at 42; I am now 54.”
Members of the group working in the scriptorium praise the hours spent there as a highpoint in their week — a time of support, protection from the mayhem of daily living, stimulation, absorption in book- or song-making. They have claimed a space for themselves, encapsulated on this page in the poem’s central word “Help,” which names their often playful communal experience around the worktable at the same time that it points in this instance to the strenuous trial of drug addiction treatment. The poem suppresses the urge for frantic petition (“Help!”), shifting to a simple, capacious noun. I see the entire work on this page — words, images, and overall design — as the form that Help takes, in both its present and future meanings — an artistic enactment of nurturing interdependence. The main articulation from experience, “myself to get off drugs,” within the quatrain and crowning the arch, brings into the “churchy” environment an irrefutable fact of the art. What does this work of art do? It constructs a utopian vision of a “naked” and invisible person, stripped of all defences, trying to get off the drugs, in a “big world” (without boundary, coherence, infrastructure) where Help in fact does exist and people in need can receive it. Although help is finally too big to put in words, each of the three phrases in the poem is indeed very big, filling its line with irrefutable, irreducible content just as the drawing of the man in the moon fills the entire arch pane. The words in those fragments work and stretch at least to their capacity. The lines comprise a triptych of principal realities in the writer’s and artist’s lives that flowing under the arch forms an open curved space of certainty, vulnerability, and daring, under the sign of Help coming directly out of the stone of the gothic arch in green, archaic calligraphic writing.
Precariousness may blind us to the possibility of something secure, known, and certain in personhood, felt as identity. We perhaps too often equate identity with material stability in our lives, but there may be something unsold, unreified, in the experience of homelessness. “Naked in the big world”: Jobian vulnerability, stripped of defences as a condition of extreme deprivation but also as unencumbered and free. One of the arch walls reads: “Mum and dad and me,” suggesting that vulnerability may bring with it the support of family. In a society that seems to require victimhood — including homelessness — protection or a roof over one’s head may also come with the price of limit; each meaning of “naked” necessitates its opposite. “Poor, unaccommodated man” (King Lear) can also see into the heart of being. The moon-face surrounded by stars all seen in an arch pane puts reality (realities) under the sign of dream: the frame is haunted. “If forced to choose, favor the reflection — it’s the more real” (Gaspar Orozco). “Churchy,” archaic, medieval signs further pitch the life back into the domain of dream, legend, and prayer where rules not driven by quotidian exigencies apply. This page, with the central image of a face, may, in its mix of order and disorder, isolation and help, reality and dream, have found a form that is identity. “To live is to defend a form,” says German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Identity, a positivity emanating from this page, exceeds its representation, “too big”; it comprises the artist’s history, current living conditions which include along with deprivations and self-medication the stimulating and nurturing working group with its leaders and makers, who have educated themselves about The Book of Hours and repurposed it to make it “ours.”
He remains nowhere.
A vessel to grasp him.
(Friedrich Hölderlin, trans. Richard Sieburth)
The arch pane looks out, envisions, while it represents an entire church or house of worship, a sacred space that doesn’t bind and doesn’t contain and yet reaffirms.
In another translation of this tiny poem, the first line is “He is homeless” which carries the German well beyond the literal. “He remains nowhere” catches more accurately than “homeless” the experience, the feeling of the makers of The Book of Ours as caught in a nonplace, without enclosure or containment at all levels of being, a state surely felt by the maker of this poem, Friedrich Hölderlin himself often remaining nowhere in body and mind but not precisely without-a-home. The line speaks to a condition of precarity to which all of us are potentially vulnerable, bound “rarely” to a vessel of safety. Fesseln; Gefäss; fassen: bind or chain or even enthral; vessel or jug or pot; grasp. A person who remains nowhere is haunted by the sound of binding, either as imprisonment and limitation or as its opposite, a desired containment; or as grasped as if possessed or held in protection or love.
[For more on the homelessness project in Poems and Poetics, see here and/or here.]
Poems and poetics