“A print is properly a dent on the page.
The whole history of letterpress is the abolition of that dent.”
— Eric Gill
Your first challenge is how to read
upside down and left to right.
When you’ve mastered this, compose
your chosen letters on the stick.
Don’t fret at impenetrable text:
your fingers are pure muscle memory,
their movements to and from the case
will let you know what’s out of place.
Employ your shooting stick and mallet
to add leading strips and knurled
furniture to make a page. Lock it
tight to form a chase. Then place
your caged lead in its letterpress bed.
Next, the ink: essentially as Caxton used.
It quakes gelatinously. You want it even,
but know its greasy mass responds
to its surroundings. On certain days,
you need to roll it out repeatedly.
There’s peace in doing this,
though deadlines may be ticking.
You need it tacky and malleable.
Now, make ready. This takes time,
as the type is worn: certain letters
take a beating. Twists of paper, tissue…
use anything to build an even surface.
Prove until you have the perfect print.
Check for literals, the spread of ink,
then set it going, hell for leather.
Mind out the flying fingers flinging
paper in and out. You mustn’t rest.
The ink will lessen, the type will stress.
You’re alert for tiny variations
creeping in. A certain tolerance,
then you have to intervene.
Stop everything. Begin again.
Remember, it’s impossible to render
the same way twice. But you’re no
running off for stripy ink and a long
weight. By the time the run is done,
you’ll be covered in ink and sweat,
cuts, bruises, burns and scars.
Your ears will sing with pain,
Your lungs retain microscopic
remnants of paper, metal, chemicals.
Your back will creak, your knuckles
crack, your eyes will strain
from too much looking.
Remember too, that it takes time,
after. To diss the type back
in its case, clean down machines,
yourself, your space. Unmaking
takes almost as long as creating.
Each element of every day
will take your mind, your body
and enduring soul to complete.
And if you do your job just so,
there’ll be no sign of you at all
in any sleekly finished sheet.
The Manchester Review, November 2013