An auditory experience is momentary, instantaneous: one instant, and another instant, and another. The ear cannot hold an auditory experience before it in space. In fact, a prolonged auditory experience causes discomfort or we efface it as a kind of white noise. In his Psychovisualist manifesto, the poet, Russel Atkins discredits the ear as an organ that is made useful only by translating sound into spatial concepts. In other words, we hear the chair scrape on the floor and we visualize the chair. By this argument, outside of music, sound is meaningless until it is assigned an image. I think Atkins means by this that without interpretation by the mind’s eye, sound is merely physical, dumb resonance. I don’t feel entirely disparaging about the ear because of course we can say light is dumb resonance, too. But I do think the ear, and thus the lyric, resists the durable logic of the eye, the capacity for sustained resonance, and in this sense the lyric image is iterative and paratactic. The lyric image tends toward a Snapchat quality. One instant after another instant after another. The narrative image, on the other hand, endures. A narrative image can be hypotactic in the way Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is hypotactic, the way Muybridge’s photos are hypotactic, or Charles Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, with its nesting, subordinate depictions of the number five. Narrative employs ocular logic to produce a living image, “moving, tense, unheeded,” as Williams writes in his poem, “The Great Figure.” The eye is never still and cannot isolate an object in space; the eye is always “gathering” information before it in time, aspiring to stillness, but never attaining it. If want to describe a specific thing in three dimensions or while it is in motion—and I mean describe it to the page the way my eye describes the world to me—I have to resort to the narrative, though this seems counterintuitive to me.
Excerpt from “How Great the Gardens When They Thrive”
While wrens, one by one, resuscitate their small portion
of the light, yellow buses progress, leave their lots.
A small moment that points merely to wrens and yellow school buses, and yet it delights. Wrens are passerine: the structure of their feet allows them to perch easily, and they are omnivorous. Wrens are built for survival.
In Dungy’s poem, the wrens individually restore and animate their small lives (their portion) and their portion of that avatar for everything life-giving: the light, which also bears connotations of everything from perception, optimism, security and joy, to divine grace. (Not to mention just plain ol’ sunshine.) The wrens revive the light by being only what they are: birds doing the daily things that wrens do. The poem draws an unspoken connection between the wrens and human life. Like our avian counterparts, we bring our portion to life in the same small, unassuming, wren-like ways. We resuscitate our lives by living them. A single wren can enliven light: such hubris, such power.
But the yellow school buses are also part of this image. The poet as a new mother contemplates the arrival of her own child and the fecund natural world. Children and motherhood center Dungy’s Trophic Cascade. “How Great the Gardens When They Thrive” turns seamlessly, as if by dream logic, from the connotations of light—bright, warm, sunny, yellow—to yellow school buses, metaphorical stand-ins for children, families, schools, and the future. Dungy writes, however, that the school buses progress—how formal and bureaucratic the word seems. The buses, the future, the lives of our children progress, move forward. But “progress” must be a word that might break a mother’s heart: a child progressing, growing up, growing away. I read the lines again and think of wrens, wildness, flight, and the reinvigorated light, and I imagine the opposite state, suggested by school buses: order, system, schedules, staged growth, the loss of neighborhood schools, and the future painted in a cheery primary color. How easily one state dissolves into the other.
Excerpt from World of Made and Unmade: A Poem
. . .
The mouse behind the filing cabinet
isn’t a mouse at all, but a rat or maybe
a chipmunk dead behind the wall—
and starting the long haul into bone-dom.
I move my papers to the dining room,
—the drafts of contracts, the permits,
—the white binder of death instructions.
The little white flags of prescriptions.
Elegant, restrained, filled with resonant spaces, and bell-clear with feeling, Mead’s book-length poem World of Made and Unmade retells the last weeks of her mother’s life. A reader might want to ponder any of the quiet, evocative moments in the poem. Mead deftly enlarges even the smallest scene. In the scene above, the poem turns from the foregrounded and visible acts of the mother’s dying to a death the poet can’t see but presumably smells. A mouse? Another animal? An unseen death behind the implied orderliness, the controlled and human-constructed index of a file cabinet. A death out of reach. And though it is only a small death, it disturbs the poet and pushes her out of lived routines.
Whatever animal has died has begun its way “into bone-dom.” Mead remains clear-eyed: bone-dom. She does not romanticize. She makes no denial, but her dry wit tries to use language to control what, ultimately, the poet cannot control.
Avoiding the smell, the poet moves, or tries to, but takes her mother’s dying (the white binder) with her. The poet cannot escape, nor can her mother, and so the white flags of the prescriptions: a metaphorical surrender, to pain, to illness, to the limits of human body, and to grief. The flags seem a small image: the white of the binder, the white flags of the prescription, and the white that might mean unmarked, empty, barren, sterile. And yet they stand as synonyms for loss.
By guest blogger poet Chen Chen, author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities
I suppose what I’d like to write about for this blog series isn’t a single image, really, since it’s a music video. Image after image after image. And sound. But I’ve been obsessed with queer musician Perfume Genius’s song “Slip Away” and the glorious music video for it, directed by Andrew Thomas Huang. The video is part friendship adventure through a fairy tale forest and part ferocious queer political statement.
The two friends (and they could also be lovers) are played by Perfume Genius (a.k.a. Mike Hadreas) and dance choreographer Teresa “Toogie” Barcelo. They’re both unruly femmes, dressed in the brightest and most ruffle-happy of outfits, while running from another duo, decidedly more menacing—two clownish schoolboys who look like Trump but drawn by a French surrealist.
The beautiful pair runs, seeking a yet-to-be-defined freedom from the confines of learned, societally acceptable behavior (for which the schoolboys harass them). As Hadreas sings, “Don’t look back, / I want to break free / If you never see ’em coming / You’ll never have to hide.” The goal is to run, to push so far into the direction you want to go in that normative societal pressures can’t touch you and you never again have to suppress the fullness and in this case, femme-ness of who you are.
“They’ll never break the shape we take,” Hadreas sings (at around the fifty second mark of the video) while his trusted companion makes pretty shapes with her fingers around his face. At the same time—and this is my favorite image from the video—Hadreas readjusts his amazing pink top with his amazing pink gloves, pulling the garment tighter on as if to say, Yes, this is what I’m wearing on our quest for freedom. The garment seems to glitter in agreement.
Excerpt from Heaven
THE STARRY NIGHT
Night frees its collar from around its neck
And walks slowly past the two bathing bears
Wading in the black stellate subheaven.
They know nothing that’s happened or that will.
Their implausibly radiant malaise
Deepening the starry night and its great
Astral ambivalence towards small things
Like bread and Bernardo’s first glimpse of the ghost.
Ah, what a little personification can do. The night removes its collar. Is the night human? Is it an animal? Does the collar represent our human mythologies and lore about the night or our ancient fear of darkness? In Phillips’ poem the night is animate, self-aware, and has volition: it frees itself. It walks slowly past what seems a bathing Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Does the night move slowly from fear? Caution? A lack of hurry? Does the night’s lack of urgency suggest something about its captivity? Does it move slowly because night always moves slowly and morning often seems far away? Readers can’t know. But readers see the night moving beyond the figurations that help humanity conceptualize, map, and place itself: two constellations. But these bears know nothing, perhaps because they have not yet shed the shape that human imaginations have forced upon them, perhaps because they are only imagined after all. But the night, no longer captive, is figuratively alive and capable of feeling. And night—the night that has mixed feelings about sustenance and artistic expression, the equivalence drawn between bread and Hamlet, one as food for the body, the other food for the spirit, mixed feelings about the simulacra of humanity—chooses freedom, which may explain why the poem presents night at first as a captive, something controlled, bounded, within the imagination’s power.
Throughout his new collection Map to the Stars, Matejka shapes from memories’ constellations his poems of Midwestern adolescence, black manhood, and the cultural moment of the 1980s. In “Do Work,” Matejka writes of “the crass powerlessness of not having,” but he defies this powerlessness by figuratively placing the stars within the hands of the African American fathers, uncles, and sons of his youth. He takes what seems a remote galaxy and makes it familiar and tangible, reworking older poetic descriptions of the stars (spilling, shining, twinkling) and intertwining the celestial—the possible, the impossible, hope, and the imaginary of outer space—with the lives of Black men. After all, Matejka suggests, what is the universe or its stars but the stuff of Black lives, a figurative space that represents escape, dreaming, or the available choices?
WELCOME BACK TO EARTH
& these Indiana stars spill
like Pops’s generous nightcap.
These stars glint
like a doorknob in a night-light.
Stars squinting like somebody’s uncle
shooting set shots in College Park.
Excerpt from “Equations”
My white cloth by candlelight is your white cloth by candlelight
I remember a meal the covenant once served me
My violin is your violin
The rain of the land in its season
Witness, set out
I rub the door post where the mezuzah held its prayer
A prayer is a tiny camera
Sharkey’s “Equations” seems, at first, to point toward parities between the speaker and the reader. And yet that parity is questionable—the reader may not own a violin. Is anything ever equal, or stable, or familiar? But soon the reader sees that perhaps the speaker is not addressing the reader but instead addressing another persona and finding connections through the tangible: perhaps a Sabbath meal. The poem moves forward, not answering the questions it raises, toward a double reading. “Witness, set out.” Is this an address to a witness, or do the words mean the act of witnessing, which the speaker wants to achieve? The reader gathers meaning, gleans it from furrowed lines (white cloth, candlelight, covenant, mezuzah), finds the poem’s Judaic center. And then the mind reaches the stunning figuration: “A prayer is a tiny camera.” A prayer, like a camera, can capture a moment, focus it, abet the eye, and preserve light. One carries a camera to bear witness, to record, to prove, to document. The image gives faith, thus prayer, a radical purpose beyond supplication to an unseen power. Like a camera, prayer becomes a tool for seeing the world, a tool we must carry, and that we use to shape the world and to manifest some small part of it. The poem continues, and then it arrives at another startling image.
At childhood’s gate, a snake
In the act of swallowing
A toad, legs first
Transfixed, we watch until
The one looks out of the other’s mouth
Childhood is a physical site. It has a gate, and before its gate, the reader sees a memory. Imagine then a viewer holding a camera before an eye, one eye before another eye. The eye looks out through the lens of the camera, and vision consumes the world. A reader might consider history then and the camera’s role: the lenses that have recorded the horrific and poignant images of war, holocaust, devastation, cruelty. Yes, the image is right: “A prayer is a tiny camera,” an act of faith, supplication.
14.—Give us a bottle and let’s be done with your world. Light us up and the fire will spread like a plague. We arrive at your office. At your machine. We arrive at your teacher’s chair. At that world that is no longer the world. Where nothing touches and we kiss each other. We join our girlish lips damp with some kind of fuel. Give us a forest. Give us the presidency.
Lately, for reasons that seem too obvious and exhaustive to name, I’ve been drawn to poetic imagery that annihilates the normative world. Cast as a plural feminine address to a “you” that is an embodiment of totalitarian power, the sections of Dolores Dorantes’ Style/Estilo are comprised of recurring images that ignite one another. Here, the flames from the female speakers’ bodies (elsewhere referred to as a “cluster of girls”) light up the violent order of an oppressor’s world—his office, machine, and teacher’s chair. They become the paradox of a combustible kiss in a space where nothing touches. I cannot un-see the absolute vulnerability of the girls’ girlish lips, which turn the language of violent domination against itself. Like any irreducible poetic image, the flame-making girlish lips reach in many directions at once, towards the effacement of speech and sex, and also the radical, redemptive burning of a world that is no longer the world. Indeed, the image of these lips becomes an imperative that insists upon the radiance of a burning forest, a burning presidency.
Excerpt from “A Toast” in Dancing in Odessa
October: grapes hung like the fists of a girl
gassed in her prayer. Memory,
I whisper, stay awake.
This devastating and unforgettable image opens Kaminsky’s poem. He compares grapes to the fists of a dead girl. Does the poet want us to see rounded knuckles? A skin purpled with bruise? Or just the inert weight of a dead girl’s hand? The vivid simile couples sweetness to the horrific: a girl murdered as she petitions the unseen. What did she plead for? What would anyone plead for? What god allows a girl to die in such a way? Kaminsky’s image haunts and repels. Death, horrific history, genocide fuse to the banalities of the everyday: seeing a cluster of grapes. As if it can’t be unseen, as if the “girl gassed in her prayer” and all the other victims of so many holocausts have changed our imagination.
Kaminsky follows the image of the grapes, and “the fists of a dead girl,” with a startling personification of memory: “Stay awake.” What if memory has a body? What if it can weary? The speaker speaks to memory as you might speak to someone you know intimately. Don’t sleep. Don’t pretend that the gassing of innocents is only a dream. Remain attentive. The poet’s role is to rouse memory, to practice that attention which bears witness, to shape images that will not allow readers to sleep, to deny, or to escape.
Excerpt from “The Black-Shawled Widows of Castilla y León”
THE BLACK-SHAWLED WIDOWS OF CASTILLA Y LEÓN
step from clamorous hives of tenement houses
and walk the grafted sycamore alameda,
two slow, dark seasons of belief.
They’ve come out for the night’s paseo,
pulling their market carts, question-stooped, cobbled hand in hand,
with bread for the pigeons still, and spit for the bust of Franco.
They walk to the stork-priested cathedral,
and I’ve seen what walks behind them.
Two black-shawled widows step from the title into Wilson’s poem, taking readers into lines paved with sound: a scene enlivened by congested tenements and the rhythms of the multisyllabic clamorous, tenement, sycamore, alameda, and by rhythms that strike the ear like the hard click of a woman’s heel. Wilson’s sonic and visual imagery draws readers deeper into the poem, and foreshadows the poem’s later vision of the cathedral rising from its foundation, through references to birds: the hungry pigeons and the “stork-priested cathedral,” the black-and-white stork figuratively suggesting the black cassock and clerical collar of the priest and, symbolically, the “mother-love” of the priest for his church. The two widows wrapped in the shawls of grief, bent with questions, feed the emblems of home, security, peace and gentleness, while spurning with their spit (once the spill of tears) Franco and the honors given to fascism. The two women are dark seasons of belief: seasons and thus natural, changing, and yet constant. But the poet adds the modifier “dark” and so lightless and so meaning winter? Mysterious? Tragic? Troubled? Two widows who have held to their beliefs during troubled times. But what do they believe, the widows whose belief the poet will soon compare to the votive candles in the church? As their whispered prayers pull the cathedral, a “prismed balloon,” from its moorings,” their votive offerings bear more power than the “husk” of a “stork-priested cathedral” or the facsimile of a fascist dictator.