Encountering Melissa Jay Craig’s book Manifest O is like coming across a tome from an ancient world: exciting, puzzling, and intriguing, a familiar form that contains distinctly unfamiliar landscapes, inhabitants and languages. Experiencing the book for the first time put me in the position of reader-archaeologist, discovering not only an elusive narrative but an underlying culture.
Constructed from abaca and kozo, the book is large yet surprisingly light to hold. At first glance, there seem to be dozens of oversized feather-weight pages, telling what must be a long story. The cover, wrinkled and warped as if weathered over centuries, seems part tree bark, part treasure map. The pages are browns and deep yellows and occasional violets, like a bruise.
Instead of a traditional title on the spine and cover, there are tears in the paper – slits, or burns, or almost claw marks – that could indicate a title, if one could but read the language. Inside, I soon I discover the holes. These are spots where the page appears to have been worn through, as if each tiny area had been rubbed over and over again, a kind of Braille worn down to nothing. Reading like lines of text, the holes are a mysterious and unreadable script.
The holes go on for several pages, and then – and then! – a pair of eyes appears, emerging from the surface of the page. Drawn in colored pencil, they look out at me. Are they poignant? forlorn? or merely seeing? Another few pages with holes, then a drawing of a finger, touching on a spot on the page, and then a nose: sniffing, perhaps. More holes, many lines of them. Then, a mouth. And another mouth. Many mouths, speaking, forming shapes with their lips, through and around the patterns of holes. Trying to clarify, to illuminate, trying to speak to me this hidden language. Pages of mouths. Pages of holes. And yet, try as I might, I cannot receive. I cannot understand the words. I cannot translate. I cannot – hear. What’s missing? Ears. Ah, ears. The narrative continues, with pages and pages of mouths and holes explaining and articulating, yet now that I understand, I have given up trying to comprehend.
As an object, Manifest O is beautiful: finely crafted, rich in color and texture, a sensual pleasure to handle and to look at. Yet vastly more important is the journey that Manifest O took me on, through an experiential understanding of hearing loss and of subsequent isolation. Through her insightful choice of timeless materials, to her considered use of empty and occupied space, to her careful and measured “texts,” Craig has created a transformative experience, bringing readers like me into poignant awareness of another world.