In 1796, at the age of thirty-two, Mary Lamb had an attack of madness and killed her mother and wounded her father with a knife. She was institutionalized for three years until the death of her father, when, at the behest of her younger brother, Charles, she was brought to live with him. Charles Lamb was a clerk at the East India Company and a well-regarded essayist, and he remained Mary’s caretaker and companion for the rest of their lives. The Lamb siblings were part of a literary circle that included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Wordsworths, William Hazlitt, and Mary Shelley, and they are the subject of the biography A Portrait of Charles Lamb by David Cecil.
Their story is also at the heart of a strange new illustrated poem that was published as a book by McSweeney’s this month. Of Lamb is a collaborative project between poet Matthea Harvey and artist Amy Jean Porter. Harvey was fascinated by the process of erasures after seeing Tom Phillips’s A Humument and Jen Bervin’s Nets and decided to do one herself with the first book she could find for three dollars. “I picked up A Portrait of Charles Lamb completely randomly,” Harvey told me. “When I discovered that Mary and Lamb were on each page, a story in poems started to emerge.” There are echoes of Sarah Josepha Hale’s famous nineteenth-century rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which tells the story of a young girl named Mary Sawyer who brings her pet lamb to school. But there are also weirder, more fascinating moments, too: “Nerves his family / Trouble his home / Dark spirits his company.”
Below are a few slides of Harvey’s erasures and the illustrations by Porter. Porter says she was “thinking of an illustrative tradition of a nineteenth-century British variety—Edward Lear, Beatrix Potter, Eleanor Vere Boyle” but also cites brass chandeliers, water towers, and artists such as Balthus and Gabriel Orozco as inspiration. Click to enlarge.
Join Harvey and Porter tomorrow, on July 7, at P.P.O.W. Gallery at 7:00 P.M. at 535 West 22nd Street, in New York, for a reading from Of Lamb.