Prose from Poetry Magazine

Two and a Quarter

An observational photographer observes poetry.

We read images instantly, in a language more tactile than words. But how quickly do words need to become images in our minds for us to understand them?

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground.
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper.
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge.
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Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rest.
I’ll dig with it.  
— From Digging by Seamus Heaney

Images are memories. A shape, a dark area against a bright one, lines that lead, connect and disturb, a posture noble or cheeky. No matter how unfamiliar, they always somehow register.

My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung.  
— From Follower by Seamus Heaney

Photographs are physical things, and taking them is a physical act. To try not to interfere with what you see or hope to see before it’s stolen away can be an act of real stealth.

Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
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                                  And wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-  
Swimming tadpoles.  
— From Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney

Words can be conjured up, chewed over, crossed out, repositioned and rewritten. With observational photography, emotion recollected in tranquility is only relevant if you have managed to capture it at the time. If there’s poetry, it’s often only by being quick.

A long time away from any place called home
night-time was the worst,
looking in a huge shop window
at a big, empty bed
and cold glass between them,
looking in a small restaurant window
at people and tables and food
and cold glass between them,
looking down into dark Liffey water
and nothing between them at all.  
— Glass and No Glass At All by Pat Ingoldsby

These pictures are all squares, taken on an old Rolleiflex film 
camera — I am guessing fifties vintage — that produces a square-shaped image two and a quarter inches, or six centimeters all around. It lacks the porous elasticity of the lithe, more common rectangular format. Tension is created by this formality and bounces around within the frame. For me, the square was like using an alien vernacular; dealing with extra space which shouldn’t be there and a lack of space where it should be. I shot them as part of a wider project on Ireland that became the book The Republic (2016), an exile’s look at Ireland one hundred years after her revolutionary Easter Rising of 1916.

Originally Published: October 2nd, 2017

Seamus Murphy is a photographer and filmmaker. His latest book, The Republic (Allen Lane, 2016), was exhibited at the Little Museum of Dublin in 2017.

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