Thursday, March 3, 2011


Anyone who has watched "Antiques Roadshow" knows that it is not really the object that has value but its provenance. Value depends on where that object came from, who owned it, or its presence at some notable event in history, all carefully documented.

I am telling you this for a reason.

For those of you who are following the progress of "Sage", my collaborative book of poetry with artist Claire Owen, you know that this work is based on John Gerard's "The Herbal, or General History of Plants", 1633 edition. I was reading through the many introductory sections which give credit to generous donors (yes, that was the same in 1633) and include a section that describes the update of the 1633 edition by Thomas Johnson of the original 1597 Gerard text.

While slogging through the Olde English typeface and 's's that are written as 'f's, I realized that Johnson was accusing Gerard of stealing most of the work in this book from an earlier Herbal. I checked with my favorite Chicago librarian Ed Valauskas, who confirmed that, while taking past work from another scientist and building on it was an accepted practice, doing it without giving proper credit was pretty much plagiarism even back then.

So had I based my whole book on a stolen text? And more importantly, did it matter?

This poem won't be in the book but considers the question of provenance and how much we care about what was, rather than what is.


No clear lines
of history or family,
of sale or charity,
or theft.

There are gaps
in ownership, questions
of judgement, disputes
over value.

What you see,
spot-lit and sacred,
may not be
what it claims
to have been,
but only
what it is.

No reason
to hold dear
except the depth
of blue, the flow
of line, the balance
in this moment,
in the next.

(c) Beth Feldman Brandt 2010

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  1. Beth, I sent Provenance to my drawing students because I saw within it the way in which we freely give what we have to one another through the act of drawing. My thanks, Michael.

  2. ...and writing! Thanks back to you Michael.