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On a photograph

A snapshot taken in the late 40s or early 50s. I thought of it while attending the Callaloo Literary conference last week and listening to the words of British filmmaker John Akomfrah. “Images,” Akomfrah said, “speak to the future.”photo-with-cane

I know the young man in the photo. I know that the picture was taken at Tuskegee University. I know that the young man is now dead. Akomfrah adds that images for people of color are typically set in the context of pathology. But there’s no pathologizing here. The man in the picture is dapper. He leans on a cane. He draws attention to himself and offers a smile that is large, unrestrained.

Akomfrah describes himself as a bricoleur: “I love the way that things that are otherwise discrete and self-contained start to suggest things once they are forced into a dialogue with something else.”

Let’s say Gordon Parks’ photo of Muhammad Ali on Staircase, then. Consider the casual drape of Ali’s body against the rail, his ease. His head lifted slightly, as if avoiding an unseen upper cut. Or take any televised episode where a black man leans against a brick wall or the side of a patrol car. Assume the position that any of these images suggests. Assume the position of the young man in the photo: cantilevered, balanced, an inclined plane.

The posing young man performs. He is an aerialist defying gravity, his body shaped into Hayden’s needful thing, wearing his unfettered confidence like a good suit. He doesn’t seem to care about falling or injury, only about his image, the image he is making. For? He can’t know. The future is a question he leans into. The question holds him up, supports him.

Akomfrah says, in another interview, “the distinction between what is ‘archival’—or elsewhere—and what constitutes an original image becomes blurred, in the sense that every time I bring a camera out I’m always aware of the unseen guests that are there, whether it’s other filmmakers, artists, or narratives. You’re aware that there’s a historical bleed into what you’re constructing.” I think about context: Alabama.

Montgomery . . . Selma . . . Anniston . . . Birmingham fire hoses. Young men and women leaning their bodies away from battering rams of water. It tore the bark from trees, they said. The snapshot of the young man shows nothing of this. Only his smile says it hasn’t yet happened. He hasn’t yet seen it.

JNH

On Angie Estes’s “You Can Tell”

From “You Can Tell” in TRYST

by Angie Estes

YOU CAN TELL

if fish are fresh by the way
their bodies arch, tails flipped up

like waves nearing shore or hands about to
wave, crests about to break, the shape

of a hand beneath a woman’s back
unhooking her brassiere, writhing

or writing the way Milton’s serpent
first approached Eve— . . .

 

How unfair ttrysto stop the cascade and rush of Estes’s poem. The images slip one into the other, from the visceral and earthbound fish, to the erotic sensuality of the body, to the spiritual reach of Milton’s epic poetry of evil and temptation. We can see no distinction, the poem suggests, among material nature, tidal energy, the sensuality and the vulnerabilities of a woman’s body, or imagination and spirituality. And yet the waves do not ebb, the hand does not wave, the brassiere does not fall, and Eve does not yet face temptation or exile. The images rush forward even while they also wait in suspension. But again that fish, the fish out of water, will die, though the poem does not allow its death in the poem. Instead the lines hurry away from the fish and its consumption, pushing instead into further waves of imagery and figuration. Maybe this is the work of images, to push us onward and to promise more. Merciful because of what they help us to deny, and because they confirm the binding connection of the natural, the sensual, and the imaginary.

Angie Estes, Tryst. Oberlin College Press, the FIELD Poetry Series, 2009.

JNH

On a photograph by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

Guest blogger poet/photographer Lillian-Yvonne Bertram decided to write about a visual image, a photograph, rather than a poetic image.

boy-in-headlights-dressing-a-deer

I keep coming back to this photo I took of this boy, a boy I didn’t know, doing the bloody and intimate work of slaughter. What can I say—this is a picture of a boy gutting a deer. They call it “dressing a deer” but what’s the difference, why not say what happened? He pulled the guts out of a deer and threw them over the edge of a ravine. Using the light from his car’s headlights, he used a knife to cut off all the meat that he wanted—the leg meat, the tenderloins, the flank—and put the meat into a black plastic garbage bag that he tossed into his trunk. In all he left with maybe 50-60 pounds. As he cut off the chunks of meat he kept apologizing for how long it was taking him and for how badly he was doing it. He was, literally and figuratively, butchering the process. His cuts were poor, leaving too much meat on the bone, not getting a clean piece of steak. He confessed it was his first time doing it by himself, that he would get better with time. He was frustrated and embarrassed almost to the point of what seemed like tears. In this photo he is pulling out the trachea. It is slow tough going, to butcher an animal. The trachea came out with a pop, and after much tugging. He was sweating by then. It too went over the ravine. When he was done, or as close to done as he would get, he dragged the entire carcass by the legs and threw it down the ravine. That was where all the carcasses went, their bare bones clattering. Covered in blood he said he needed to call his mother, that if he didn’t call his mother after he went hunting she would get worried.

(This image appeared as a special postcard insert in an issue of Saltfront. For a larger image, click on the photo.)

 

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram is the author of But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise (Red Hen Press 2012), chosen by Claudia Rankine as winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award; a slice from the cake made of air (Red Hen Press 2016), and personal science (Tupelo Press, forthcoming). She teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

On Phillip B. Williams’ “Bound”

from “Bound” in THIEF IN THE INTERIOR

by Phillip B. Williams

Can I be only one thing
at once? I was told to believe in and became that
single vessel beneath which water I would never taste
moved. I was shut tight. I was going somewhere
and quickly.

Little boat.

Little boat made smaller by distance.

 

Here metaphor and linebreaks work together to help readers imagine a boat—a little boat—but also to feel the loneliness and the vast emptiness in which the boat drifts. But as soon as Williams gives us the “little boat,” in the next line he revises the image. It is not just small in size. It is also far away from the eye. The mind enlarges the ocean, the space, the sense of endangerment. The boat moves, changes. The speaker’s life ties metaphorically to a small boat. Readers can fear for the speaker, for the peril in the speaker’s smallness, or for the peril in the speaker’s uncertain, quick-moving journey.thief-in-the-interior

“My soul is an enchanted boat,” Percy Shelley writes. “Michael row de boat ashore,” sings the spiritual singer, reflecting other comparisons of life to boats or to the crossing of deep waters. Williams draws on this imagery, but then distinguishes his imagery by linebreaks that separate the “little boat,” separating it by white space and visual silence, and by catching the mind’s revision. The poem, rightly so, does not offer a narrative plank to walk from the abstract vessel to the more defined “little boat.” It asks readers to make an associative leap.  But Williams’ question “Can I be only one thing at once” troubles. What he is told to believe, he becomes: sealed, reduced, isolated, and going toward an unknown. He is a single vessel above water (sensuality? engagement? danger? agency? satisfaction?) that he believes he will never taste. The magic trick comes in the questions that this moment asks: Which did you choose? Are you the small vessel you were told to be, or did you throw yourself into the sensual oceanic depths of the unknown?

JNH

 

Phillip B. Williams, Thief in the Interior. Alice James, 2016.

On Ladan Osman’s “How to Make a Shadow”

from “How to Make a Shadow” in ORDINARY HEAVEN

by Ladan Osman

Give her the spirit of a dog,
a black dog with a sword in her paws.
Tether her.  Put Position
at the bottom of a well filled with rats,
rats with shining backs, their eyes shillings
in the pocket of a man who sweats,
sweats at the ass crack for Position.
Say to her, bark, and she moans. . . .

 

Surreal or dream-like or imagination-work might describe Osman’s poem. Immediately, her words disturb and unsettle. The poem refuses to identify the woman. It doesn’t describe the kind of spirit a dog has, or say whether it is the same for every dog. The sword in the dog’s paw—can she not cut her tether? Will she? Why are the dog’s fangs and claws not enough? The poem triggers questions, but it does not provide answers.

Readers then must imagine the repugnance of scurrying, milling rats shining in a damp, entrapping dark. The well is closer to a grave or a pit or a trap. The reader has no control. The poem tells us to replace a woman’s spirit with the spirit of a dog, put Position in a well, ask the woman to respond like an animal. Perhaps all this happens against our will, perhaps not.

The rats’ eyes are coins, pocket change in the clothing of a sweating man. The man’s body repulses. He sweats for Position. His body repulses presumably because of the man’s obOrdinary Heavensession with social rank. The description makes the man ugly, in the same way that rats are ugly. And what is capital or money but the eyes of vermin, the bearers of pestilence? The craving for social rank offers little but sweat and money and ugliness. “Say to her, bark, and she moans,” but the moaning disquiets. Tell the woman to use her voice like an animal and she moans? Is this a sexual response? Pain? Protest? All of those? The poem will not clarify. Give a woman the spirit of a dog: Faithful? Wild? Dangerous? Take away her human-ness, try to, but still something human remains: she moans. The poem frightens. And we keep reading.

Ladan Osman, Ordinary Heaven. Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, 2014.  In association with the African Poetry Fund and the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute.

JNH

On Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia”

from “Portrait in Georgia” in CANE

by Jean Toomer

Hair—braided chestnut,
coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Eyes—fagots,
Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
of black flesh after flame.

 

Jean Toomer offers his concise and searing portrait in his great classic, Cane. DiscoverinCaneg this book as an undergraduate was a life-changing experience. It is one of the touchstone books that I re-read because of its terrifying lyricism. The poem’s imagery is not subtle, and its politics scald even after all this time. Melding the image of a woman’s body with the horrors of lynching. Beauty racialized and corrupted by the violence it spurs. How not to recoil? A woman’s body as danger, an implement of racial control. And yet that poignant line, “Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,” and afterwards rot and loss. If breath also signifies the word-breath shaped language, maybe the poet also speaks to the inability of this violence-corrupted body to speak in a way not tinged by ruin, rot, charred bodies.

Jean Toomer, Cane. 1922. Ed. Darwin T. Turner. Norton, 1988.

JNH

On Ryan Teitman’s “Ars Poetica”

from “Ars Poetica” in LITANY FOR THE CITY

by Ryan Teitman

the moon begging its way
into the morning sky

like a child
pounding at the embassy gate,

or the breath
against a windowpane

fogging our view of the century oak,
its last leaves traded

for a hundred crows
littering the snow with black tail feathers

and small, clean bones.

 

Teitman stretches his images to a breaking point. The moon, shaped like an alms cup or a cupped palm, is not the golden, luminous sky-pearl of poetic lore but a beggar. It is the endangered child caught in yet another of the world’s geo-political mishaps: Refugee? Orphan? Lost waif? And as readers must see the moon, we must also see the child or how the child’s urgency reflects the historical moment. Teitman keeps pushing the imagery even further, making the moonlight like our condensation of breath in winter. The poet could suspend the Litany for the Cityimage, but instead expands it. The reader sees oak leaves replaced by crows: omen and loss and death. Teitman fills his images with transition: night into day, the child at risk before sanctuary, autumn into winter, life into death. The moon and the child are petitioners. The poem suggests that the unknown speaker is also a supplicant, perhaps trying with breath (words, language, the sensual) to obscure what nature does not hide: our coming death, the death of all.

Ryan Teitman, Litany for the City. BOA Editions, 2012.

JNH

On Carl Phillips’ “Gold on Parchment”

from “Gold on Parchment” in SPEAK LOW

by Carl Phillips

. . . though I do not forget, mostly, the difference
between the kind of invisibility one can wield—a form
of power—and the other kind, that gets imposed from
outside, and later fastens like character, or dye, as if
invisibility were instead a dye, and the self a spill
of linen, Egyptian cotton: whore

 

In Phillips’ richly crafted “Gold on Parchment,” natural imagery evolves into a meditation on invisibility. What is the result of getting forced into the margins and unseen, or of controlling or not controlling our own presence? The poem pushes onward, “the self a spill of linen,” triggerinSpeak Lowg a chain of associations with beds and bed linens—and then the unexpected, accusatory leap—whore. The self made from woven threads, but at the same time also touched by carnality and corruption. Is that the result of trying to deny, or make unseen, the part of self that is sexual? As always Phillips’ serpentine syntax drives the poem onward into an eroticized contemplation. Readers briefly ponder, look into the unseen folds of their own selves, read on.

Carl Phillips, Speak Low. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010.

JNH