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2000-06, 326, Alan Rickard, Poetry, Print Art

A Celebration of Edelweiss

According to the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, Sydney writer Winifred Birkett (1897-1966) published three novels in the 1930s, which were very highly regarded at the time. She also published, in September 1932, one small book of poetry.

Recently I had the good fortune to acquire a copy of this volume, Edelweiss and Other Poems, a singularly appropriate title for a collection of romantic poetry. The edelweiss is of course regarded as the flower of love in European alpine regions and legend has it that mountaineers proved their love in climbing a local peak and returning with edelweiss picked on a moraine. It was said too that many a mountaineer fell to his death in this endeavour, to be found on the valley floor far below and, if you can believe it, still clutching the edelweiss.

It makes a very romantic story, but Winifred Birkett’s climber is a woman, who elects to live on the mountain amidst the edelweiss and sing to the gods the songs her brothers down below do not understand.

There are twenty poems, six being sonnets, and some of these were reprinted from The Australasian, The Bulletin and The Sydney Morning Herald. The style is very beautiful, but the book itself is interesting in other ways. It was printed, in 120 numbered copies, by the Beacon Press, long since vanished but in 1932 to be found in Cunningham Street, still a meandering lane today in Sydney’s Haymarket area. (I have never seen the purpose in numbering, then a common practice, though perhaps I am missing the point somewhere.) The book is 12 x 20cms, unpaginated, signed and was apparently never reprinted.

At first glance the pages seem slightly browned but on closer examination it is apparent that this colouration is actually a slight pinkish tinge and the cloth cover is also pink, though not in any particularly feminine way, as the colour is very subdued. But more interesting, and perhaps unique, is the pattern of the cloth, resembling a mirror print in concept.

Held to the light we see what appears to be an irregular pattern of waterlily leaves floating on a pond. Turned in another direction this disappears and we see an equally irregular pattern of gossamer.

A small survival of beauty in a philistine world and at this remove I am grateful to poet and printer for their artistry.

Alan Rickard

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