The Marginalian
The Marginalian

A Darkly Delightful 1905 Poem Celebrating Punctuation, Newly Illustrated in Silkscreened Typographic Art

A Darkly Delightful 1905 Poem Celebrating Punctuation, Newly Illustrated in Silkscreened Typographic Art

The great German philosopher, sociologist, and music theorist Theodor Adorno considered punctuation marks the “friendly spirits whose bodiless presence nourishes the body of language.” Beloved poet Mary Oliver jested that every writer has a finite lifetime quota of punctuation. But there is no more marvelous a celebration of these friendly spirits than In the Land of Punctuation (public library) — a beautiful and clever type-art adaptation of German poet Christian Morgenstern’s darkly delightful 1905 poem “Im Reich der Interpunktionen,” illustrated by Indian graphic artist Rathna Ramanathan and translated into English by Sirish Rao.

Morgenstern, a sort of German Lewis Carroll who crafted literary nonsense with an aphoristic quality and a touch of wry wisdom, was in his early thirties when he wrote the poem — a jocular parable of how dividing a common lot into warring subgroups produces only devastation and no winners. That he died mere months before the start of WWI only lends the piece an eerie air of prescient poignancy.

Silkscreened on handmade paper with traditional Indian dyes and hand-bound in a limited edition of 3,000 numbered copies, this gorgeous large-format book comes from South Indian independent publisher Tara Books — a small team of passionate book- and art-lovers who have spent two decades giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on books handcrafted by local artisans in a fair-trade workshop in Chennai. That labor of love has produced treasures like The Night Life of Trees, Waterlife, Creation, and Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit.

The peaceful land of Punctuation
is filled with tension overnight

When the stops and commas of the nation
call the semicolons “parasites”

Within the hour they form their troops,
an anti-semicolon group

The question marks avoid the scrape
(as always) and quietly escape

The semicolons’ mournful racket
is drowned out by surrounding brackets

And then the captured creature freezes
Imprisoned by parentheses

The dreaded minus sign arrives
and — slash! — ends the captives’ lives

The question marks, now homeward-bound,
pity the corpses on the ground

But, woe! A new war looms large,
as dashes against commas charge

And cut across the commas’ necks
so that the beheaded wrecks

(the dashes delight in gore)
as semicolons hit the floor

Both semicolon types they bury
in silence in the cemetery

Those dashes that still remain,
Creep blackly behind the mourning train

The exclamation holds a sermon
with colon’s help, right on the spot

Then through their comma-form free nation
They all march home: dash, dot, dash, dot…

Complement In the Land of Punctuation, the tactile beauty of which this screen fails to convey, with the fascinating story of the failed crusade for an irony punctuation mark and Adorno on the art of punctuation.

Illustrations courtesy of Tara Books; photographs by Maria Popova

Published January 4, 2016




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