grand palais

Matters of the heart


Followers of Invective will recall the chapbook Formerly, my first project with designer and photographer Vici MacDonald. The success of Formerly demonstrated to us that there was a niche we might fill, as we discovered there were very few publishers willing to take on poetry/ photography collaborations (although since then there have been a few brilliant ones: I Spy Pinhole Eye by Philip Gross and Simon Denison and Wordless by George Szirtes and Kevin Reid to name two). And so, our press, Hercules Editions was born. 

There was never any doubt what our next project would be. Back in 2010, Vici, me, and our friend, the poet Sue Rose, went on a trip to Paris. During our stay, we visited Personnes, Christian Boltanski’s Momumenta installation at the Grand Palais. I was familiar with Boltanski’s work – so much of it a statement on loss and memory, the great atrocities of the twentieth century, particularly the Holocaust – but this was devastating, overwhelming. The vast halls of the Grand Palais were filled with rectangular plots, like graves, filled with old clothes. Further into the hall, a picker on the end of a crane grabbed more piles of clothes and dropped them on a burgeoning heap, like a burial mound, like the piles of bodies, dead or nearly dead, that were discovered when the Allies liberated the camps (it is particularly poignant that I write this a few days after Alice Herz-Sommer, the last survivor of the camps, died at the age of 110). Laura Cumming summed up the experience in her review at the time:

You were in a necropolis, now you are in purgatory: balanced between heaven and hell, witnessing the hand of God. Except, of course, that you are in a freezing, cacophonous place surrounded by secondhand clothes and probably eager to be gone. That is the exceptional achievement of the piece. All its elements are frankly simple and apparent, you see how they combine, how it all works. Yet none of this stifles its resonant truths, that in the midst of life we are in death, that man’s inhumanity to man continues beyond Auschwitz, Srebrenica, Rwanda.


And into the huge echoing space came the sound of heartbeats; Boltanski’s other great work, Archives du Coeur, is an attempt to record as many heartbeats as possible, so that they might be eventually stored on an island off the coast of Japan as a permanent record of human existence. At Monumenta, you could have your heartbeat recorded to be part of the installation. Sue immediately queued up.

We were all moved by the work, but it was Sue who carried away not the recording of her heart (you could get a CD, but it was too late in the day by the time she’d had hers recorded) but the seed of an idea that would grow over the next three years, from a few initial poems that drew directly on the installation, to a whole sequence which formed her own ‘heart archives’ – poems about the people she loves. Vici and I watched the sequence grow and develop, out of that incredible experience that Boltanski gave us.


And so the book, Heart Archives, was launched in London last week. Rather than use images from the installation, Vici commissioned Sue to take her own photographs, on her iPhone (the technology which allows us all to be our own archivists), of things and people who matter to her. The result is a book which is intensely personal, but also very moving – we can all connect with the need to preserve those we love, to keep their flames burning even once they are gone.

I will end with a few words from Sue, from her introduction, on the process of making the images for the book:

It was a strange process, rediscovering and revisiting so many of our family’s valued objects which, despite being within easy reach, had been forgotten and ignored, gathering dust in dark places. I was saddened that many of them had either been damaged by the passage of years and neglect or stripped of their identities and resonances to become once more objects devoid of meaning and history. It reminded me again of the importance of preserving and documenting the artefacts from our own personal archaeology. If we don’t, we risk losing our heritage and, by extension, ourselves.

Heart Archives is now available. You can order it here: