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Poetry Surprise

· Poetry,Fine Book Collecting,World War II,Maple Leaf Down,Alexander McKee

When we first started to collect books, the sources of supply were three-fold. Used bookshops, antique auctions/garage sales and responses to the ads Glenda and I put in the newspapers. “Young couple building a library…..” We put that in local newspapers where we lived and for summer after summer, we would put that ad in the Halifax Chronicle Herald just before we arrived home on vacation. And it was very effective, we bought many books mostly from older folks who were wondering what to do with their books.

After we moved to Toronto, I started to go to antiquarian book fairs, buy books, meet dealers, get on their mailing lists for their catalogues. Before “www” it was through the issuance of paper catalogues that dealers sold books to other than local customers or other dealers. There are cartons of these catalogues down in the basement.

In 1993, I bought an item from a great dealer, William Reese in New Haven CT. It was a manuscript of WW II war poetry called Maple Leaf Down by Alexander McKee. I took a flyer and paid $75 for it thinking it had to be by a Canadian serviceman. Nope. So, I put the manuscript back in the envelope it had been sent to a publisher in and filed it in the “Paper Ephemera” section of one of our bookcases. Actually, it is more than that; odd shaped and very large books, old postage stamp albums, posters and so on. As you can see in the picture it consists of two shelves in the bottom section of a secretary-style bookcase. I was looking through there for something last week and came across this item.

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For the first time in almost 30 years, I retrieved this item and got a “Poetry Surprise”. Because now we have “www”. Englishman Alexander McKee, after his war service went on to become a very well known historian and author of some thirty books. Here is a link to the Wikipedia page on Alexander McKee's distinguished life and career. What I have in hand is likely his very first effort of having a book published, while he was still serving overseas. And I can’t find that it was ever published as is.

Let’s start with the envelope. Sent by Forces mail to Miss Erica Marx, The Hand and Flower Press, Kent. That press rang a bell but there is no Wikipedia entry for it, although I see there are a number of their books on Abebooks for sale, poetry and such, so I can see a fit. Unfortunately, any covering letter to the publisher is not present. I got out my bible on the small publishers - The Private Press by Roderick Cave, Faber & Faber, London, 1971, who is an excellent authority on the history of books. There is a two-line reference to this press, so it is a minor press. Cave is talking about small hand presses – “A good many of such ventures have become recognized and respected in the field of the private press – Seizin, or Erica Marx’s Hand and Flower Press”.

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Now let’s look at the other side of the envelope and you will understand why it will be impossible for anyone to pry this book/envelope out of my hands. Realizing, of course, that this feeling of “must keep” is only hours old.

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Look what the author has written on this very British, very formal Customs Declaration Form – Value – DUBIOUS. I should try this when I am filling out postal forms. Priceless!

I hope you get as big a laugh out of this as I did.

But when you look at the manuscript there is no room for mirth. The book is called Maple Leaf Down – the Continental Journal of Alexander McKee. The poems follow him as he advances from Normandy in August 1944 through the end of hostilities and then continues through to September 1951. He stayed in Europe as part of the “British Army on the Rhine – or BAOR as part of The British Forces Network.

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This work will move onto my bedside table so that I can understand his journey through his words. Curiously, the poem “Maple Leaf Down” is completely silent re its title.

He placed his earliest poem as the last poem in the manuscript. It was written in London, March 1944 when likely he realized that he would be going into battle:

When I shall die, perhaps my song

May live a long time after,

And printed pages prove more strong

Than love, and know more laughter.

And words that cry down lonely years

May burn like arrows tipped by fire,

With the sigh of all our falling tears,

And the vanity of vast desire.

Shall these live on and thus ensure

When heart and mind are gone,

That something of ourselves endure

Which men may think upon.