A fine press's portrait of Thoreau. YBP edition is notable for its commentary as well as its design

The Winged Life: The poetic voice of Henry David Thoreau. Edited and with commentaries by Robert Bly; wood engravings by Michael McCurdy. Covelo, Calif.: The Yolla Bolly Press (Main Street, Covelo, Calif., 95428). 134 pp. $475. North of San Francisco in Round Valley, James and Carolyn Robertson, the proprietors of Yolla Bolly Press (YBP), create about 12 books a year. Some are for the Sierra Club, which will offer an inexpensive trade edition of ``The Winged Life'' this fall. Jim started printing things in the seventh grade and has never stopped. Knowing his limits, since the YBP opened in 1974 he has learned to yield to his wife, Carolyn, in matters of design, color, and grammar. He's the printer; she's the editor: The division of labor has produced some beautiful results since 1982, the date of their first limited edition.

Now we have ``The Winged Life,'' a marvel of taste and understanding. Until now, YBP books have been regional. ``The Winged Life'' will interest general readers everywhere and should put Yolla Bolly Press on the map.

It's customary when inspecting a fine-press item to say things like: This edition measures 10 by 14 inches and is printed on heavy mouldmade Arches 88, a French paper. The type was set in Monotype Van Dijck and Caslon 471 at Mackenzie Harris Corp. in San Francisco. Each of the 85 numbered copies is bound in Dutch linen with a slipcase (there's an even more expensive set of copies, in half leather with linen, with additional engravings).

That's all true, and it is a beautiful piece of printing, but thank goodness there's more to say. At $475 a shot there had better be! (No, that's not a misprint: $475 it is.) I think I can make a case for ``The Winged Life'' as an original work of art.

This is not just any piece of fine printing, but a thoroughly integrated whole. The engravings by Michael McCurdy, for example, need to be discussed in context. McCurdy is an illustrator in the classic sense: Rather than imposing his personality and style on the reader's experience of the book, he illuminates the text's meaning. Usually I find fine-press illustrations derivative from one or two major artists -- Leonard Baskin, say -- but McCurdy seems to be an artist in his own right.

As for the text, Robert Bly, the well-known poet, translator, and thinker, has rescued Thoreau the writer from the obfuscations of time and fame. Given the way we have these days of transforming figures into sentimental images, this was no small undertaking. Bly's commentary introduces each section of this anthology, and is in itself an important contribution to our understanding of Thoreau and of American culture.

In his pamphlet ``Printer's Dozen: the Yolla Bolly Press at Twelve,'' James Robertson writes: ``We believe that books are power objects -- icons, if you will, that they represent what is valued in the culture. The best of them, those we most cherish for what they say about the human condition, deserve to be set forth in a style and manner which equals their spiritual and intellectual worth.''

Certainly Henry David Thoreau's ``Walden'' is such a powerful book, as generations of readers will testify. And the reader of ``Winged Life'' will include, along with ``Walden,'' Thoreau's journal and poetry, as well as other writings. Bly has arranged the chosen passages in five sections, the introductions to which constitute an extended essay on Thoreau, striking for its intelligence and breadth. As scholar, Bly knows Thoreau's writings intimately; as poet, he is able to suck the truth out of them as marrow out of a hambone.

A word about engraver McCurdy's contribution to ``The Winged Life.'' Each section opens with a full-page engraving. In each one Thoreau appears: at first small, almost hidden by trees, gradually growing larger and larger until his face dominates the page as he peers at a sprig with sadness in his eyes and a smile on his lips.

In the end, Bly concludes that he loves Thoreau for his ``fierce and meticulous observation,'' for ``the density [he] developed in his own personality,'' and for ``his metaphorical thinking.'' This book amply demonstrates these aspects of Thoreau.

Bly's presentation of Thoreau seems definitive, not only as an eye-opening presentation of the poetry in the poems and prose, but of the man. Bly's portrait would not seem so definitive if he did not recognize what he calls Thoreau's ``undeveloped side.'' Bly's ``Brief Biography of Thoreau'' suggests what that side was.

Five years after Thoreau published his account of his retreat at Walden, the death of his father in 1859 made him the head of the family and manager of the family graphite business. In three years he, too, was dead.

In his journal for Feb. 18, 1852, noticing the snow crust over rivers and ponds, Thoreau wrote: ``I can with difficulty tell when I am over the river. There is a similar crust over my heart.'' It detracts nothing from Thoreau to gauge the cost of his solitary way of life.

More than just another fine press item, ``The Winged Life'' is a unique combination of design, commentary, original text, printing, and original art. It fully justifies James Robertson's concept of the book as a symbolic and powerful object. That it could be neither symbolic nor powerful without being beautiful is one of the recognitions one has as one turns over these spacious and gracious pages. With such art, the Robertsons, Bly, McCurdy, along with Thoreau, redeem the promise made by every book.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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