State hospital sequence, early seventies. Photo by Claudio Pelizzon.
Other kids’ dads had hidden stashes of porn — we giggled and made sure not to get caught looking. My dad was a pornographer. He supplemented his income with freelance camera work, and in addition to shooting head shots for aspiring models, he took pictures of people having sex.
I discovered this sideline a few years ago when I inherited hundreds of negatives that had been in storage since his death in 1977. My dad had spent his life trying to succeed as a photographer. He’d had some early achievements as a filmmaker in Trieste after the war; his short documentary about that city won an award at the Venice Biennale. But after immigrating to the States in 1958, his artistic career stalled. Family needs — combined with quirky English — landed him in a series of low-wage jobs. He was a gardener, a fry cook in a hotel, then an audio-visual specialist in a state mental hospital, where his tasks included making educational films about psychiatric treatments. His freelance work allowed him some creativity behind the lens, though many of his negatives show predictably “marketable” scenes: winsome animals, lobster boats at anchor, New England woods in the snow. I vaguely remember one commercial triumph when he sold a photo to a pet food company and thereafter our kittens appeared on the twenty-five-pound bags of kibble.
Did he enjoy photographing cats? Was it aesthetically appealing? As appealing as snapping pictures of pussies? Or did freelance work really just add up to more money at the end of the week? I’ll never know. He died when I was ten; my memories of him are sweet and self-absorbed. Some days he’d bring me with him to his darkroom in the city. At Government Center we’d get take-away donuts and milky coffee. All I can recall about his workspace are surfaces cluttered with electrical cords and the air’s sinus-chilling chemical smell. He’d have to clear a spot so we could spread napkins below our breakfast. But that rich milk of odors — lactose plus fructose plus fixer — seeped into my brain and obsessed me with photographs.
Here I’m in good company. Since the invention of the light-reactive photographic plate in 1839, poets have been tantalized by the camera’s images. This dawned on me almost two decades ago, when I’d begun reading about photographic history. Concurrently, as if sensitized by the new subject, I began noticing that almost every poet I picked up seemed to have something to say about photographs. I’d open Donald Justice, maybe, and there would be a poem responding to an image of a Depression-era mule team. Walker Evans’s stately documentary shot is captured in Justice’s lines, which conclude as a shadow:
the last shade perhaps in all of Alabama —
Stretches beneath the wagon, crookedly,
like a great scythe laid down there and forgotten.
— From Mule Team and Poster
Or I’d be reading Wislawa Szymborska and come upon a poem using a baby picture as occasion to note the banality of evil:
And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!
Where will those tootsy-wootsies finally wander?
— From Hitler’s First Photograph
Or I’d find poets using photographs figuratively, as in “Epilogue,” where Robert Lowell mourns that
sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Or, John Koethe announcing:
What I want in poetry is a kind of abstract photography
Of the nerves, but what I like in photography
Is the poetry of literal pictures of the neighborhood.
— From Pictures of Little Letters
Adolf Hitler, circa 1890.
Soon it seemed hard to open any volume of poems without lighting on at least one photographically-inspired piece. In astonishing numbers, poets speak to photos, speak for photos, imagine the narratives of photographed subjects, and reconstruct the circumstances in which photographs were taken. Just sixteen years after its invention, Whitman celebrated “the camera and plate” and included “the lady [who] must sit for her daguerreotype” in the catalogue of “Song of Myself.” By 1857, the camera was so ubiquitous that Lewis Carroll could parody Longfellow by publishing a spoof about a photographer named Hiawatha. In the intervening years, is there any other technology poetry has so deeply absorbed?
Inevitably, one photo poem I’m drawn to is Rilke’s “Portrait of My Father as a Young Man.” It’s easy to see why Rilke approached this subject; after all, what’s more evocative than images of these fugitive familiars before the defining feature of their lives — us — made them complete? My own father’s absence prompts me to adapt Diane Arbus’s adage: like a photograph, a parent is “a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”
In the eyes: dream. The brow as if it could feel
something far off. Around the lips, a great
freshness — seductive, though there is no smile.
Under the rows of ornamental braid
on the slim Imperial officer’s uniform:
the saber’s basket-hilt. Both hands stay
folded upon it, going nowhere, calm
and now almost invisible, as if they
were the first to grasp the distance and dissolve.
And all the rest so curtained with itself,
so cloudy, that I cannot understand
this figure as it fades into the background — .
Oh quickly disappearing photograph
in my more slowly disappearing hand.
— Translated by Stephen Mitchell
Claudio Pelizzon, near Trieste, WWII.
By now the photo-of-parent poem has become a cliche, and we can trace some of its stock elements back to Rilke. Dreamily Papa gazes off toward the future. His clothing, once a sign of power and prestige, is quaintly dated. The picture’s begun to deteriorate: time is dividing the speaking son from the figured father he cannot understand. Only mortality unites them, the son’s decay slower but no less assured than the father’s.
Tenderly done ... but what stops me, what seems the great flaw in this translation, is that Mitchell has rendered as “photograph” the original’s “Daguerreotyp.” It’s a crucial misstep. If you’ve seen a daguerreotype, you know that it looks very different from other photos because this process, in use from 1839 until around 1860, preserved the image on a reflective plate. Oliver Wendell Holmes called the daguerreotype a “mirror with a memory.” When looking at one, you see your own self reflected. The effect is almost like a double exposure; two moments meet on the daguerreotype’s surface. It’s integral to that final stanza to see that what the speaker is holding is a gleaming plate on which his own living face overlaps with that of his lost father.
Rilke’s poem dates from 1907–08. By then, daguerreotypes were not only outmoded but positively archaic compared to later advances in photography, including the point-and-shoot Brownie camera introduced by George Eastman in 1900. Unlike the long exposure required by the daguerreotype, the Brownie was literally a snap. As a 1903 ad campaign promised, with a Brownie, “Any school-boy or girl can make good pictures.” From the vantage of 1907, Rilke nostalgizes not only his father but the aristocratic formality of basket-hilts, fancy braid, and a more complicated techne.
There’s another level of pathos if we stick closer to Rilke’s original word. Daguerreotypes, while vulnerable to scratching, are actually quite sturdy, more so than later images printed on paper. That’s why so many of them survive, glowing spookily in antique shops and at estate sales. Rilke’s speaker misunderstands the durability of flesh versus steel plate. “My more quickly disappearing hand” would be closer to the sad truth.
For a long time I regarded poems about photos as examples of ekphrasis, that “verbal representation of visual representation” genre theorized by scholars like W.J.T. Mitchell. As Mitchell sees it, the relationship between verbal and visual arts is contentious. Verbal texts like poems are time-based, while visual arts such as painting and sculpture are primarily spatial. Poetry, like music, is dynamic; its duration is essential to its effect. Painting and sculpture, on the other hand, are generally static. And so, ekphrastic writing often positions itself as a controlling voice that must speak for the silent art object. Keats’s Grecian urn, say, is beautiful, enigmatic, and mute; the poem masters, defines, and vivifies its stillness. In ekphrastic writing time and space confront each other, and the ways poets negotiate this contest gives the genre its energy.
But I now think that photo-poems like Rilke’s “Portrait of My Father” are not really ekphrastic. Photographs don’t derive their essence from their spatial quality. They exist in space, of course. But a photograph, like a poem and unlike a painting, depends on time. A photo’s essence is that millisecond caught by the shutter, an instant that often gains power and meaning the further we move away from it. As Wright Morris puts it, the photo
authenticates, for us, time’s existence. Not the ruin of time, nor the crowded tombs of time, but the eternal present in time’s every moment. From this continuous film of time the camera snips the living tissue.
Roland Barthes is the prose poet of this spectrality. He coined the term “punctum” to describe the subjective, often-trivial details that in some photos “wound” a viewer by attesting to the actual instant caught there. For the viewer, the punctum triggers an existential realization of the life beyond that instant — a life that, in photos of our young parents, we know is already past even as it remains present in the image. This, I believe, is why we surround ourselves with photos: they’re so loaded with time that we must domesticate them, and thereby render them mundane, or we’ll be crushed.
I’m pointing at something that might seem flaky or fey; nonetheless, it repeatedly startles me: photos are ghosts. And while most people condition themselves to ignore this, poets are honest about how freakish photographs really are. Ted Hughes, for instance, makes their uncanny essence explicit in his “Six Young Men.” After describing a snapshot of some soldiers, he details their wartime deaths. Then he insists that
That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are.
At the same time, there’s no “prehistoric or fabulous beast more dead” than the pictured men. The photo’s aggressive co-existence of life and death is not only haunting; it’s potentially unhinging. Truly, “To regard this photograph might well dement,” Hughes continues, since “Such contradictory permanent horrors here / Smile from the single exposure.” And the horrors won’t stay in the frame. They jostle us because, while the figures smile, they also “shoulder out / One’s own body from its instant and heat,” pushing us to confront our own
Poets have explored this uneasy situation at length. As a result, we have a veritable genre of its own that I’m going to christen the luciphrastic. It’s an ungainly word, but it implies kinship with ekphrasis while shifting the focus to light, that marker of time. As a working definition, I think of luciphrasis as a verbal representation of a photograph that emphasizes the photo’s time-filled status. We have luciphrasis when a poet meditates on “The magic box / Whose simple click froze summer’s passing dream” (X.J. Kennedy), or looks at the photo of an old lover and tries to fathom “his day, it’s vivid shining stuff / Negated to matte slate / A riddle’s chalked on” (James Merrill), or muses over snapshots, thinking “I should set up some sort of shrine for these / Bouquets of time” (Baron Wormser). To put it another way, the luciphrastic poem is a time capsule containing a time capsule.
Is it odd that the pornography wasn’t surprising?
Some people can’t live without making things. My dad was like this. Before I could read chapter books, he taught me how to draw a skeleton properly and how to shape wire armatures for my clay sculptures. Depressed by American pasta, he let me help him squeeze potatoes through the ricer for gnocchi. He studied the Egyptians and built pyramid-shaped cardboard hats that he wanted the family to wear during supper to increase our mental powers. His metaphysical streak was apt for a photographer, since, as Morris puts it, “the camera eye partakes of the supernatural, of the miraculous. It is no accident that it is a gift of light and that its alchemy takes place in darkness.” Meanwhile, in the world of lead, my dad was often frustrated by the tedium and poor pay of his official jobs.
So when I say that the pornography didn’t come as a total surprise, what I mean is: it’s easy to see that making pictures of beautiful people who were at least simulating pleasure must have gratified him. At least, I hope it gave him gratification — aesthetic gratification — as well as some extra cash.
Because my dad badly needed artistic satisfaction, and the older he got the harder it was to come by. As a young man in Italy, he’d been taken under the wing of his Uncle Vittorio. Vittorio Osvaldo Tommasini (1881–1964) was something of a figure among the Futurists. Using the pen name “Farfa,” he published poems and plays, designed ceramics, painted, and made collages. He associated with F.T. Marinetti, and when Marinetti describes in his preface to the Futurist Manifesto how “We had stayed up all night, my friends and I, under hanging mosque lamps with domes of filigreed brass, domes starred like our spirits, shining like them with the prisoned radiance of electric hearts,” I imagine Uncle V. beside him, exhaling benzene vapors and stroking the hood of a shark-like automobile.
Farfa wearing a crown of aluminum laurels, circa 1959.
V.’s poems exalt urban energy, speed, and inventions like the radio. One included in the recent FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry praises the experience of watching a train climb into a tunnel; another celebrates zany Parisian cocktails. Even birds at daybreak, the stuff of aubades, are drafted as part of his industrial workforce (my translation):
in ravishing black satin capes
type out the wake-up
dictated by dawn
I suspect that Uncle V.’s technophile aesthetic influenced my dad’s desire to work with cameras. Both men shared fantasies of a machine that could convey pure thought without the hesitations of language. In the flyleaf of his book Marconia, sent to my dad in 1960, V. has quoted back a passage from one of my dad’s recent letters:
Thoughts run faster than rivers, one is never able to stop the thought with exact sentences.... There will come a day when, instead of a letter, you’ll send a reel of magnetic tape with your true thoughts inscribed on it, more or less developed.
Composed in Italian, the passage suggests how frustrated my dad was with his limping English. But it’s clear he means that even his
native language is too slow. Words themselves are the barrier to real communication. His sentiments echo those Uncle V. expresses in Marconia, and to emphasize this V. has underlined passages where their tongue-tied feelings overlap. It’s a moving gesture of kinship between an elderly worshipper of newness and his distant protégé.
What my dad longed for, it seems, was something like Koethe’s “abstract photography / Of the nerves,” and it was the film’s spool that came closest to inscribing his thoughts. Aptly then, the image I have in mind when I picture him leaving Trieste is cinematic. It’s the final scene of Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953), where the young artist Moraldo, sickened by life among his provincial friends, boards the train for Rome. I keep these frames of hopeful promise in mind, even though I know that in another letter written a few years later my dad will dismiss his achievements by saying he’s “done nothing, by American standards.”
While Futurist writing demands “aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap,” the luciphrastic poem revels in the languors of the lyric mode. The lyric poem is often described as wanting to halt time; our pleasure in reading lyrics may come from the psychic pause they offer. David Baker suggests that “our survival instinct seems to depend on our reluctance to accept our mortality. We fantasize about time stopped, time eliminated…. Such is the dream of the lyric poem.” Similarly, Tess Gallagher describes how poems work as time machines that sustain us in a world where technology has reduced our sense of past and future to “an instantaneous ‘now.’” Poems offer the possibility of bringing past, present, and future together by creating a space where that “now” can expand. If all this is true, it may be that luciphrastic poems abound because the lyric’s dream of an expanded “now” responds with particular intensity to the photograph’s paused instant.
Think of it this way: photographs are actual “spots of time” captured chemically or digitally. Scholars have remarked that when Wordsworth named those formative instants that his memory caught and held fast for later lyric dilation, he seemed to anticipate the workings of the camera. (This isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. Optical precursors such as the Claude glass, which could be held up to frame and focus a panoramic view, were popular in Wordsworth’s day.) The key spots of time passages are strongly visual. For example, in the 1805 Prelude, the poet describes waiting in a field as a boy to be brought home from school:
Upon my right hand was a single sheep,
A whistling hawthorn on my left, and there,
With those companions at my side, I watched,
Straining my eyes intensely as the mist
Gave intermitting prospect of the wood
And plain beneath.
Soon after the boy’s return home, his father dies. That emotional stab intensifies his recollection of the field, and the poet remarks that in later life he would mentally revisit the sheep and tree as “spectacles” of an earlier time. Wordsworth had to rely on memory to revisit his evocative scenes. We (luckier?) later denizens need only gaze at our iPhone screens.
Rather than representing something merely past, a photograph is more truly what Geoff Dyer calls an “ongoing moment.” A dash of time is caught, held, and continues to generate energy that may intensify as more layers of time accrue around it.
Several weeks ago I discovered a photograph of my mother
sitting in the sun, her face flushed as with achievement or triumph.
The sun was shining. The dogs
were sleeping at her feet where time was also sleeping,
calm and unmoving as in all photographs.
— From A Summer Garden by Louise Glück
Both traditional printed photographs and digital pixels on a screen can crush us with the “calm and unmoving” ongoingness they hold.
It’s this insistent realism, this ongoingness, that made Baudelaire suspicious of photography; he felt that the new technology, “by invading the territories of art, has become art’s most mortal enemy.” Chiefly, he feared photos would lead people to prefer verisimilitude over imagination. As he vituperated in his “Salon of 1859”:
Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another.... If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally.... If it be allowed to encroach upon the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us!
By the time Baudelaire wrote this, scores of daguerreotype studios filled the Paris streets, serving the public who flocked to have their images made. Finally even the scoffer succumbed and had some grim portraits taken by his friend Nadar.
Philip Larkin, though as capable as Baudelaire of dyspeptic rage, responds more tenderly to photography’s banal realism. In his “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” he describes several captivating pictures of a friend. She appears “in pigtails” in one and “Beneath a trellis” in another. The speaker then bursts out:
But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
And will not censor blemishes.
People have read these lines as disparaging of photography. I disagree. Larkin — an avid amateur shutterbug himself — is simply distinguishing apples from oranges. His friend’s pictures are not the works of a visionary inventor. Each is only a snapshot that “shows the cat as disinclined, and shades / A chin as doubled when it is.” But it’s just this plodding realism that draws from him a final apostrophe to photography: “what grace / Your candour thus confers upon her face!” In context, this is the highest praise. Only the mundane is-ness of a photo could wound the speaker by insisting that here we have “a real girl in a real place.” The poem is one of the best examples in verse of someone experiencing Barthes’s punctum.
It’s also one of the best examples of a poem acknowledging that it can’t quite catch the ongoing moment the way a photo does. In the penultimate stanza, the speaker ruefully steps back from the album, acknowledging “The gap from eye to page,” from his own this-now to the snapshot’s that-then. Stare as he will, he can’t fully enter “a past that no one now can share” with the pictured girl. Larkin is characteristically crisp with this fact. Unlike the mistily-fading daguerreotype in Rilke’s hand, Larkin ends with the photo holding its subject “Unvariably lovely there, / Smaller and clearer as the years go by.” That grammatically odd “unvariably” kills me. Larkin has no doubt that our images do outlast us.
State hospital sequence, early seventies. Photo by Claudio Pelizzon.
“History decomposes into images, not into narratives,” Walter Benjamin wrote. But how loudly images cry out for narrative. How temptingly these bits of time’s tissue lure. No wonder poets are drawn to vernacular photographs, those found images of ordinary people doing unremarkable things snapped by unknown cameras. Who hasn’t seen shoeboxes full of these pictures at flea markets or junk shops and felt an itch of curiosity? Often the photos seem boring ... and yet, and yet ... once you start looking, you’re trapped. Who is this child (and who says there are no ugly babies)? What’s around that woman’s head? Are these this man’s actual teeth? On his neck — Adam’s apple or goiter? An hour later your palms are gray with dust and your Saturday reverie has been displaced by an electrical thrill at having grazed some deep-dwelling nerve at the core of existence or, conversely, by existential horror at the repetition and vacuity of all human endeavor.
Part of the vernacular photo’s appeal is what’s not there. No art, no masterly gaze, no decisive moment, no visual signature. Just a snip of time, compelling for making time visible. Glitches in technique can enhance this authenticity. Blurry pictures help us see time’s passage because, as Morris remarks, they suggest “the transient role of humans among relatively stable objects.” And vernacular photos offer a reprieve from digital perfection. Today anyone with a camera phone can create thousands of gorgeous images; the result is what Teju Cole calls “A disaster of meaningless clarity.” Instead, vernacular photos give us tentative gestures, tenuous glimpses.
They also provide an instructive contrast to poems. A hasty snapshot done with indifferent technique showing a mundane thing — a girl on a bike, a man crossing a street — can be arresting. The vernacular thrives in the photographic medium. But it doesn’t in poems. That is, there are plenty of thin poems in flat language showing dull scenes, but who wants to read them? On the other hand, a skilled poet might evoke the atmosphere of the vernacular photo. Donald Justice comes to mind again. How often he places us in an apparently banal setting: a boy is practicing the piano, or a man is leaving a washroom, or we’re in a suburb where “The same crimson afternoons expire / Over the same few rooftops repeatedly.” But the poems aren’t dull. They just look easy, snapped in passing by an unfussy, unpretentious (yet technically perfect) eye.
“After the animal kingdom, the mechanical kingdom begins,” thundered the Futurist Manifesto. Thus the daguerreotype. Thus ambrotypes, tintypes, lantern slides, dry plates, box cameras, Kodachrome, single lens reflex cameras, digital slrs, the iPhone. And now gadgets like the photoBot, a device that uses sound to detect humans and photograph them. “This automation allows people to enjoy an occasion, such as a party, in the knowledge that the occasion is being documented photographically without the need for them to do it themselves,” explains the promotional text. It reads like a satire of our self-obsession. Or it begs to be satirized, much as the Onion did a few years ago in praising Mark Zuckerberg, CIA operative, for convincing us to engage in constant self-surveillance by publicizing our every move on Facebook.
Given these developments, the word “snapshot” will soon cease to connote privacy and forgettable spontaneity. Roughly ten percent of all photographs in existence were taken in the past year. Instead of yellowing gently in print albums, many zipped immediately through a satellite and onto the web; one Facebook engineer says that the site typically receives 200 million photo uploads per day. “Snapshot” was coined to echo the rapid click of the Brownie’s shutter. Today we probably need a new word for camera images whose defining feature is their availability for instantaneous digital dispersal.
But those of us who have inhabited the meat world long enough probably still think of a “snapshot” as an image made without too much planning, capturing a personal moment or something that briefly caught our eye. While a “photograph” might be artistic or historically significant, a “snapshot” is usually ephemeral and unassuming.
The snapshot’s low-key associations suggest a provocative contrast between ekphrasis and luciphrasis. How often the ekphrastic poem announces the poet as a museum-goer who recognizes the importance of a masterwork. Take Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Line by line the imagery of the broken yet transfixing sculpture ratchets up, until the stone, pulsing with virile power, sees you, the reader, and if, if, you are sensitive enough to hear it, utters that lightning-bolt command: you must change your life.
In contrast to this rhetorical grandeur, consider how often the luciphrastic poem includes the word “snapshot” in its title, as if insisting on the modesty and amateur nature of the work at hand. Recall the Brownie advertisement: any school child could make one of these pictures. Luciphrasis whispers of intimacy with the overlooked, the casual, the otherwise unknown.
Still, it would be misleading to say that all luciphrastic poems are about quiet pictures. Poets have responded to moments of trauma by writing about devastating public photos. It’s a risky gambit: such depictions could easily veer into sensationalism. But if the poem emphasizes the photograph’s ongoing moment, something moving can happen. Here, again, is Szymborska:
They jumped from the burning floors —
one, two, a few more,
The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.
Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.
There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.
They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.
I can do only two things for them —
describe this flight
and not add a last line.
— Photograph from September 11
Photo from September 11, 2001. By José Jimenez.
Szymborska evokes what Barthes calls the “anterior future,” that photographic tense in which we can see a photo of the deceased and say both “he is dead” and “he is going to die.” The awful has already happened, yet within the photo it’s held in abeyance.
We know what happened on September 11, and we saw — over and over again — photographs of people who fell from the buildings. How do we respond to such images? In an earlier age we might have asked, “Should we look at horror or turn away?” Now our technology forces the question, “If we can’t escape mediated images of horror, how can we resist being numbed by them?” I have no good answer. To empathize with someone in a September 11 photo, I imagine myself in her place. Yet sitting in safety and pretending I can summon her experience feels grossly presumptuous. Meanwhile, my sympathy for mass suffering curdles into the mawkish; I pity individuals but am prone to sentimentalize groups. And to complicate things, when confronted by upsetting pictures, my mind tries to shield itself by translating the images into formal problems: that’s not a person but a pattern of lights and darks and lines. If this reactive muddle led me to write a poem about a 9/11 photo, the results would appall.
Szymborska instead responds with almost savant simplicity. As a witness, she must “describe this flight.” But she never lets us forget that it’s a photographed flight. Focusing on the single picture’s pause, its keeping each person “above the earth ... still complete / with a particular face,” she creates an is-ness parallel to the photo’s. She doesn’t deny the ending that’s “well hidden” outside the frame. Neither photo nor poem can escape it. But her abrupt “not add[ing] a last line” echoes the pathos of the photograph’s temporal suspension. It’s a masterly way of resisting the hortatory or bathetic or platitudinizing tones that deaden expressions of public mourning.
How much is “enough time”?
Not the length of a free fall. That is most definitely not enough time.
But ten years? Even if you were too young to remember the first few, in that span couldn’t you learn all you needed about cats and pyramids and skeletons and wire and fathers and cameras? And if you had fifty-six years, like my dad — how could you think you had “achieved nothing”? Such a wealth! Five decades of instants, spots, is-nesses, ongoings.
Some of them remain here in his photos. This one says that a hand is a star against the body’s moon. Here’s one considering how closely a wasp’s nest resembles the cells of a snake’s shed skin. This one shows that a child holding a chicken is a mild roundness containing an alert spikiness. And here a sail and a cloud take on the same bell-swell in an east wind.
To snip these tissues from time, my dad relied on the millisecond reflex of a shutter. But how strange inheritances are. The Futurist gene faltered. Unlike the swift passage of my dad’s thoughts, my perceptions depend on slow accruals of language. I jot lists, notate odd rhymes, pencil half lines that smudge to nothing. Recently I noticed how many phrases from early photography treatises I’ve scribbled in my notebooks over the years. “On the Art of Fixing a Shadow.” “Memoire on the Heliographe.” “Mordançage.” Is there an aperture through which I might see a poem inspired by “the lens of Captain Linnaeus Tripe”? (Yes, it’s a real name.) And how I long to use a title adapted from Anna Atkins’s 1853 botanical collection, “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.” (Really, that might not be a single poem; the matter-of-fact unpoesyness of British Algae invites a whole book. How much time would be enough for that?)
We hope for enough time, knowing there is never enough time. Except, maybe, in poems — in writing them and reading them, far inside them where we lose account of minutes. Except, maybe, in photographs, where time sleeps but doesn’t close its eyes.
The author and her chicken, circa 1969. Photo by Claudio Pelizzon.