November 23, 2022

Marking the Days

A traditional or historical “book of days” (or "day book") was like an almanac. They recorded past events, including Saint Days of the church, and famous people who were born or died that day. Sometimes each day had a little essay – not unlike a blog post. But, at one time, it was also not unusual for people (more often women, from what I have read) to keep their own book of days where they recorded events and observations on the day. 

Not exactly a diary or journal. The traditional ones might tell you on November 19 Charles I of England was born in 1600, and that it is the Feast Day for St. Pontian, pope, and martyr, who died about 235. 

In Chamber’s Book of Days for this day, there’s a curious article about “Patching and Painting” a lady’s face. The beauties of the court of Louis Quinze would put gummed pieces of black taffeta on their cheeks to heighten the brilliancy of their complexions. The “fops” of Elizabethan England had long before anticipated them, by decorating their faces with black stars, crescents, and lozenges. The fashion prevailed and in 1640 it was written that “If it be a lover’s part you are to act, take a black spot or two; twill make your face more amorous, and appear more gracious in your mistress’s eyes.”

A personal day book might record a family birth or death. It might record when the roses bloomed or when Cousin Bill visited or the Full Moon or an eclipse.

This month I saw that Patti Smith has published her visual A Book of Days. It has photographs of her daily coffee, books she’s reading, gravesites of friends and the famous, and daily images accompanied by short text – “captions” but sometimes somewhat poetic. She is a poet, as well as a musician, photographer, and writer of other things.

She describes it this way:

"A Book of Days is a glimpse of how I navigate this culture in my own way. It was inspired by my Instagram but is uniquely its own. Much of it I created during the pandemic, in my room alone, projecting into the future and reflecting the past, family, and a consistent personal aesthetic. 
Entries and images are keys to unlocking one’s own thoughts. Each is surrounded with the reverberation of other possibilities. Birthdays acknowledged are prompts for others, including your own. A Paris café is all cafés, just as a gravesite may echo others mourned and remembered. Having experienced much loss, I’ve found solace in frequenting the cemeteries of people I love, and I have visited many, offering my prayers, respect, and gratitude. I am at home with history and tracing the steps of those whose work has inspired me; many entries are that of remembrance."

Smith uses the word "prompts" and that is something that I respond to as a poet. What is that thing that starts you putting down words? 

Her project came out of her use of Instagram and her acceptance of an iPhone as a camera after they stopped making film for her beloved Polaroid. She takes a photo of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s hat or her partner Fred “Sonic” Smith’s guitar. These are things from people she knew who have passed and the objects remain unused. Objects she does use, such as eyeglasses, writing implements, and manuscripts, also are featured. Like Smith, if I am in a café, I have my phone and a notebook nearby and I record the day. 

On day #338 in the year, Patti wrote “19 NOVEMBER: Bruno Schulz, the brilliant Polish writer, was shot in the street by a Gestapo officer on this date in 1942. Much of his writing, including a work called The Messiah, was tragically lost in the war. This is Jim Carroll’s heavily thumbed copy of Schulz’s masterpiece The Street of Crocodiles."

My own book of days went online in 2014. I called it Writing the Day. I wrote a short poem every day about something from that day. I had someone interested in publishing the poems as a book, and the question came up, “How important are the accompanying images?” Some of them are mine; some are open-sourced or public domain. In my podcast version of the website, the images get lost (as well as the links). How much is lost in this digital transfer?

Here is what I wrote for November 19, 2022, on Writing the Day.

Not about traditional saints and feast days,
not devotional almanac, calendar, or scrapbook clippings - 
not my journal. Not any of those
but all of those. Life logbook through time.
Capture one good line, images, in words.

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