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Book of the Week: Selected by Odette England

Book Review ciprian honey cathedral Photographs by Raymond Meeks Reviewed by Odette England Raymond Meeks is renowned for his use of photography and the book form to poetically distill the liminal junctures of vision, consciousness and comprehension. In ciprian honey cathedral, he brings this scrutiny close to home, delicately probing at the legibility of our material surroundings and the people closest to us. 

ciprian honey cathedral. By Raymond Meeks.
ciprian honey cathedral
Photographs by Raymond Meeks

Mack, London, UK, 2020.
96 pp., b&w & color illustrations, 9½x11¾".

I have a routine I like to follow when a new photobook arrives at my door. I make a cup of tea. I settle into the well-loved rocking chair I found on the sidewalk a few years ago, a few doors up. I open the book to an arbitrary page. I look and touch with my eyes and hands. Sometimes, my heart is touched. I take a long sip of tea. I turn to the start of the book and meander my way through the asters and goldenrod and any weeds, should there be any, to the end. The next day, I taste the words. Sometimes, the day after that, I tiptoe out of bed in the earliest dark, and sneak a look at that image, the one with fortitude that grinds grey matter.

With Raymond Meeks’ latest book, my curiosity at its title kicks my routine to the curb from which the rocking chair came. ciprian honey cathedral. It’s not quite the name of a place (“What are we doing tomorrow, dear? I thought we might drive to Ciprian Honey Cathedral”). Not quite the name of a band (“Give it up for… Cip-rian. Hon-ey. CATHE-DRAAAAAAL…”). Not a drink (“What’ll it be? Oh, how ‘bout that new one, Ciprian Honey something-or-other?”) or a recipe (“What’s for dinner? I’m up for Ciprian Honey Cathedral, you?”). And not a fashion label (“Tell us, who are you wearing tonight? One of my new faves, Ciprian Honey Cathedral”).

Though not mentioned in the book, its cryptic title – according to Meeks’ website – comes from the backside of an abandoned dresser found near a vacated home in upstate New York. Already a vivid image. Abandoned when, by whom? Real wood? Three drawers or four?

ciprian honey cathedral. An apt choice for a photobook about home, “a loaded word, a complex idea,” write Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters in the introduction to This is the Place (2017), a collection of essays about what makes a home. “There are so many ways to define it”. Indeed. And, photographically speaking, in his book Meeks invites us to contemplate our definitions of home, its creatures and counterparts, its nooks and nuances, the angle of its objects and the slight of its subjects.

The first four images are black and white, three of which show Meeks’ partner, Adrianna Ault, unguarded, lying in bed. Close Wyeth-esque studies of her face, hair, hands, and shoulders. As the visual poetry continues – for the book presents as autobiographical verse rather than definitive story – a delicate rhythm forms. Delicate, because, though visible, it is lusciously subtle. A moving from bedroom to outdoors. An ushering of color, muffled and slow. Pictures of windows, weighted fabrics, vines, twigs, rocks, rubble. Peeling paint, clefts, wires. Things that bind, things that undo us. Lights on, lights off. Overgrowth. Lonely fruit. Places to take the weight off. Vertebral images. Looking down, then away. Images that are collective and mutual as much as they are solitary.

Deft sequencing in this book reflects a rising and building, enough to feel hopeful. These are photographs of a real world, Meeks’ and Ault’s real world of home. Yet they are uninhibited and open enough that, in opening the front door and smiling at me, welcoming me, shoes and all, they also entice me to mentally revisit the partitions and fences of my own homely past.

ciprian honey cathedral. By Raymond Meeks.

Meeks’ photographs that nest with me the longest are those of Ault. They are felt images. I don’t see lethargy or wakefulness, I feel it through the landscape of Ault’s horizontalness and her being exposed to film. Her mind likely having lapped the house over and again throughout the night. From the undulation of her brow in the first photograph to the creases of sheets and her chevron-shaped arms in the last. I feel her dreaming about unpacking and repacking bowls and cups; adjusting to sharing space with another; new scents and sounds that creep and seep when new bodies, new objects, new breath move in. 

But Ault is the least inert subject in ciprian honey cathedral. For the house appears pregnant with activity while waiting for her to stir. Like Meeks, its walls are looking for her and at her. Not in a judgmental way or through a lens of scrutiny; rather, as someone keeping watch. And it is through Ault that Meeks shows me what inhaling and exhaling look like in a single photograph. Between Ault’s chest rising and falling, images of domestic views and rituals that we take for granted as things become familiar to us have a unique charge: the pitch of the roof, shadows on wood, parched leaves on concrete. It is through these pictures Meeks reminds us that we see the loves of our life, and the life of our love every day. We just don’t always appreciate that that’s what we’re looking at.

I must mention the books’ cover, which contains a collage written by Meeks, inspired by Nick Cave’s Rings of Saturn. I find online a letter that Cave wrote to a fan, who’d asked him what the song is about. It is this part of his answer that punctures me in context of ciprian honey cathedral:

“There is great danger in asking a songwriter to explain their songs – or at least to make the assumption that their interpretation is in some way more valid or true than your own. This is simply not the case. I believe the fan often has a deeper understanding of a given song than its creator. Sometimes, I feel that I am the last to know what one of my own songs actually means. Sometimes, they take many years to reveal themselves. With that in mind, as you’ve asked, I will tell you what I think is going on in Rings of Saturn. I only hope my answer does not diminish the value of the song for you.”

Replace ‘songwriter’ with photographer and ‘song’ with photograph, and I hear Meeks’ voice. And there is one phrase in the collage that speaks the loudest: “full-tilt-boogie”. It feels like code, a language that only Meeks and Ault speak. For every relationship contains a code, and every photograph is codified.
ciprian honey cathedral. By Raymond Meeks.

I prefer it when photographers maintain some secrets about their work. I don’t want my read of Meeks’ images in ciprian honey cathedral to be unwrapped like that dish I’ve kept all these years without knowing why. Not-knowing is, in this case, that flannel shirt that my husband wore in his twenties that I refuse to throw away. It holds our past in ways that only an object’s lover could care for.

I say this because Meeks is the one who appears the most restless in his images. Ault fits the place, his lens, this home, the page. As Cave wrote of Rings of Saturn’s chorus: “…the woman as the divine force, beyond explanation, beyond description. She just cosmically is.” Meeks reveres Ault via his camera, pore to core. The disquiet I sense is in his navigating his relationship with this house-as-home.

Talking online with my parents in Australia, mom asks what I’m writing about. I tell her about Meeks’ book. Dad, sitting next to her and tuned out, springs to life in when I mention the title, ciprian honey cathedral. “You know, that’s a kind of stone, sort of worn-in.” I end our call to do more research. Dad is right: honey cathedral limestone is paving, tumbled, with a foot-worn surface and soft-rounded edges. A fitting assemblage of words to describe Meeks’ photographs: foot-worn, surface, soft-rounded, edges. For that is a home. A place we tread and are trodden; that caresses our surfaces; that reflects our wishes and desires through who or what we hold dear; can toughen as much as soften; and through its edges be sharp or bitter, or drowned in love.

Since the age of 14, I’ve lived in 25 houses in four countries. Home, its physical structure, is perhaps my body wherever it may lay, as Ault does. ciprian honey cathedral tethers me not to a time or a place, but to a set of ever-shifting feelings about home. Cropped, taken from a world that is at once larger than our bodies but can be cupped and cradled in our hands, and rocked to sleep.


The writer wishes to acknowledge Alison Nordstrom for the phrase "asters and goldenrod".

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ciprian honey cathedral. By Raymond Meeks.

ciprian honey cathedral. By Raymond Meeks.

Odette England
is an artist and writer; an Assistant Professor and Artist-in-Residence at Amherst College in Massachusetts; and a resident artist of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Studio Program in New York. Her work has shown in more than 90 solo, two-person, and group exhibitions worldwide. England’s first edited volume Keeper of the Hearth was published by Schilt Publishing (2020), with a foreword by Charlotte Cotton. Radius Books will publish her second book Past Paper // Present Marks in collaboration with the artist Jennifer Garza-Cuen in spring 2021 including essays by Susan Bright, David Campany, and Nicholas Muellner.