February 25, 2013

Sendak’s poetic endnote

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There’s more wildness in store for fans of Maurice Sendak. Before his death in May 2012, the master storyteller completed one last book, a magical tribute to his late brother, Jack, and his longtime partner, Eugene Glynn, that, with its questing hero, surreal plotline and fluid imagery, neatly encapsulates the work of his 60-year career.

At once bold and tender, cosmic and intimate, My Brother’s Book is a mind-blower of a poem—a tale of brotherly love that unfolds on a mythical scale and bears traces of Shakespeare and Blake.

The book opens with a catastrophe. When a star slams into the Earth, siblings Jack and Guy are instantly lost to each other. Jack is cast into a frozen landscape, where he’s encased in ice, “a snow image stuck fast,” while Guy is hurled into the sky, “a crescent . . . passing worlds at every plunge.” Guy makes an unfortunate landing—in the paws of a giant polar bear, who is uninterested in the riddle Guy puts to him concerning Jack’s unhappy fate. With little ado, the bear devours his catch, and thus begins Guy’s final journey, “diving through time so vast—sweeping past paradise,” to a lush underworld where he reunites with Jack.

At least, that’s one interpretation of My Brother’s Book. Open-ended and ethereal, it’s an odd little narrative, even by Sendakian standards. Its illustrations, so beautifully fluid and yet precise, teem with the effects of nature—the details of a metamorphic landscape taken over by trees and vines, boulders and roots, icicles and cinders. The sky is an extra, palpable presence in many of the pictures. Thanks to the galactic details Sendak added—drifting stars, smoky clouds, oversized moons—you can practically feel the pull of the planets.

As scholar Stephen Greenblatt writes in the book’s foreword, Sendak found themes for his final work in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a play about separation and reunion.

Sendak, who won the Caldecott Medal in 1964 for Where the Wild Things Are and wrote and illustrated dozens of other children’s books, credited Jack,also a children’s author, for inspiring his passion for writing and art. My Brother’s Book is also regarded as an elegy for Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst and Sendak’s partner for 50 years before Glynn’s death in 2007.

This elusive coda, inspired by cycles of love and loss, serves as the ultimate salutation to the ties that bind.

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