Brain Pickings

I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail: 17th-Century British “Trick” Poetry Meets Die-Cut Indian Folk Art

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Exquisite storytelling as exquisite artifact.

Rarely do I get this excited about the release of a book, but then again rarely does “book” fail to capture the artifactual whimsy and singular storytelling genius of a printed work so completely. From the team at Tara Books, who for the past 17 years have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books, comes I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail — a die-cut masterpiece two years in the making, based on a 17th-century British “trick” poem and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe by Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti, who brought us the magnificent The Night Life of Trees.

Each line of the “trick verse” builds upon the previous one, flowing into a kind of rhythmic redundancy embodied in the physical structure of the book as each repeating line is printed only once, but appears on two pages by peeking through exquisitely die-cut holes that play on the stark black-and-white illustrations. Thus, if read page by page the way one would read a traditional book, the poem sounds spellbindingly surreal — but if read through the die-cuts, a beautiful and crisp story comes together.

Not unlike Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, a book once dubbed “unmakeable” by bookbinders, this project required a remarkable level of ingenuity to make the conceptual structure of the poem fit the physicality of the book as a storytelling artifact. Over on the Tara Books blog, Japanese-Brazilian RISD designer Jonathan Yamakami, responsible for the book design, recounts the challenges and the Eureka! moment:

From the very beginning the main challenge to me was: how do we create a book that presents both readings without actually printing the poem twice? A lot of different solutions were considered. I think [Tara Books founder] Gita Wolf was the one who hinted at the direction of die-cutting although was still open to other possibilities. Using transparent paper and printing with two colours was another suggestion, but there was an issue of cost and, more importantly, it just seemed too complex for a poem that was in itself so simple. After all, once you crack the puzzle that it holds, you can’t help but wonder how you could have missed it to begin with.

I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail is unlike any book you’ve ever held in your hands and in your heart, and outcharms even the most impressive die-cut books of the past decade.

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