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Absence of the Archbishop

Full text of poem:

Notes, sketches, etc.:

This poem is short, sparse, and contains a lot of concrete imagery, but even in its simplicity it is quite cryptic. Because of this, rather than attempting to extract a singular meaning or narrative from the text, I think that it will be more helpful to collect the details that contribute to its overall mood. In my notes, I listed the images and concepts that jumped out at me and then narrowed them down to a few that I found most salient. 

I ended up isolating the ideas of holiness, gold, an empty house, singing, and the "you" – one of the more unusual aspects of this poem is that it is written in a repetitive second person. I also outlined some of the concepts to which the poem led me indirectly. The religion elements combined with the simple language gave me a sense of sparseness and austerity, and just the word "archbishop" leads me to imagine something cold and medieval. This train of thought brought me to Gregorian chant – the poem itself is a bit like a chant, and the references to singing reiterate this for me. 

From the beginning, I was most interested in the visual of an empty house as the focal point of the design. The poem's narration of "your" actions, the references to windows, the image of the sun as "cold gold" through the closed windows, and the final line, "You expect to be heard singing in your house" all led me to visualize the progress of the poem as the solitary "you" walking through an empty house. As a result, most of my sketches incorporate different parts of a house's interior. I experimented with closed windows and doors, staircases – structures you might find in a foyer. I kept these structures closer to the foreground because I think it is important for the reader to be able take on the role of "you" in this poem and I wanted the image to suggest the reader's potential point of view without necessarily defining the whole house for him/her. I also toyed with the ideas of rows of empty church pews or a piece of sheet-covered furniture. In addition to the house, I also wanted to capture the singing motif and the sense of medievalism that I got from the poem so some of the sketches also include staves and music notes but I didn't figure out how I wanted to incorporate these until I started designing. 

Eventually, when I was trying to figure out how to get both music and gold into the design without going overboard, I remembered that medieval liturgical music and Gregorian chant were written in neumatic notation (below). 

I chose this Kyrie and decided to mimic its four bars of notation in small gold stylized neumes over the photo of old, monastic-looking wooden stairs I chose for the background (Photo © Rhona Voegele // www.fouroceans.org). I rotated the photo to appear as though the viewer was peering down the top of the spiral. 

This is a contemporary American poem and O'Brien is distinguished but not a household name. Taking this into account, the audience for this text is probably familiar with contemporary poetry and reasonably comfortable with the abstract, so I think it's appropriate for the cover to have some mystery and abstraction to it and it's fair to assume that this wouldn't necessarily turn off potential readers.

I ended up with these samples. For some reason I feel like the full white border is best suited to a short poem, but I'm not committed to it. I also like the idea of white text because it kind of subtly references the word "absence" in the title. 

Final design: 

Though I liked the full white border because of its simplicity, I ultimately chose to take it out because I thought that white text was a nice way to reference absence, and I also felt that by letting the photo take up the whole space, the viewer would have more of a sense of being in the house, which is the feeling I got from the poem's use of the second person.

Feedback/criticism very much appreciated!

Photo © Rhona Voegele

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