after the fireworks stand closed for the summer
it was only a matter of days before we broke into the camper
in which my uncle had stashed the leftover boxes
of black cats, jumping jacks, conical fountains, charcoal snakes
and an array of small tanks, rockets, and—our favorite—the “laying” hens
which shot sparkling, screechy eggs from their backsides just before
their fool heads exploded.
having stolen too many class d explosives at once—fearful now
that we would be caught–it was decided that everything should be exploded
at once, and the remains buried in the pasture behind the barn, long before
all the adults came home from work and, once again, we were forced
to return to our chores and screamy lectures, the endless eggshell-walking we inevitably did
around anyone over the age of thirteen
stuffed into a gallon milk jug, doused
with gasoline siphoned from the push mower, the now five-pound bomb
of frankensteined firework was placed in the middle of the street
in front of the house, becoming like so many in the pantheon
of our ill-thought adolescent plans:
the unpredictably snapping zipline, rendered from baling wire and a rusty wheel
or the makeshift trapeze which snagged the neighbor girl’s arm as she swang
snapping it like a handful of dry spaghetti noodles
before she flew threw the air of our backyard
with all the grace of a wingless baby bird
no one was prepared for the combustion
that several pounds of low-grade fireworks swimming in gasoline
might actually produce—something vaguely vesuvius-like, smoldering and convulsively shooting
in every direction at once, setting fire to the dry grass in a nearby ditch
before hurling a few errant rockets skyward
to explode over my aunt theresa’s house
at night it might have been beautiful—the kind of fleeting
contained violence of light and heat
that would have kept us running back, over and over
to light the fuse
but in the treacly light of a babysat weekday afternoon—in a summer when our biggest worry
was boredom, it might as well have been a puff of dust
or an airborne collision of dirt clods, some curls
of chalky colored smoke and invisible cinder-cracklings to signal it’s departure from the earth,
the unexpected overhead explosion
like a smudge against the absolute blank nothingness
of an otherwise empty sky
-T Cole Rachel
This Is a Photograph of Me
It was taken some time ago.
At first it seems to be
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;
then, as you scan
it, you see in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.
In the background there is a lake,
and beyond that, some low hills.
(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.
I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.
It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion
but if you look long enough,
you will be able to see me.)
-Margaret Atwood, 1939
From The Circle Game by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1998 by Margaret Atwood. Reproduced by permission of House of Anansi Press. All rights reserved.
Joel Sternfeld, Bear Lake, Utah, July 1979, from American Prospects
in this photo, a sign
by which I passed–both willingly
and sometimes, unwillingly–
for the first 18 years of my life
on an almost daily basis
perched on the outskirts of town, this simple marquee
has stood guard for decades, whitewashed annually
but quick to weather
it is the last thing one sees
when leaving this place
stay beautiful – a plea written in rust
a roughly hewn request, a suggestion
for living, a way of trying
to somehow always be: beautiful
or, as it often felt to me–teenaged
and driving towards an evasive horizon
–a welded warning: stay beautiful
-T. Cole Rachel
Note: In my Poetry & Photography class at CCNY I ask my students to write poems based on their own photographs. Every week I try and do the exercises with them, which has been one of the greatest things about teaching the class. I feel like I’m often compelled to write poems that I might never have otherwise. The above poem was written about a photo that I took back in my Oklahoma hometown. I think it pretty much explains itself.
My obsession with Anne Sexton started when I was a teenager. The dark, deeply troubled, and occasionally hysterical tone of her poems stuck a chord with me on a very deep level. I was a sullen, gothy teen and any poet responsible for a poem called “Wanting to Die” had my immediate attention. Given that I had at that point already exhausted the works of Sylvia Plath, becoming myopically enamored with Anne Sexton seemed the next logical step. I tracked down all of her books and at one point I even bought a copy of Peter Gabriel’s So because it included a song about her (“Mercy Street”). Even though her most famously misanthropic poems satisfied some kind of teenage need for being morose, her work eventually meant much more to me than that. Her poems were not only a gateway into a world of more serious poetry, they were also a fascinating glimpse of how one’s own psychology could be reflected, analyzed, and understood in the context of their creative work. Over the years I have written many a poem (most of them bad) trying to mimic Anne Sexton. Thankfully, I know I’m not the only one. Her work–particularly her early work–remains untouchable. She was a troubled genius…but a genius all the same.
Below is a poem that we read in my “Poetry & Photography” class at CCNY. It’s one of her most famous poems and one that lends itself nicely to a discussion of the way a poem can address and react to a photograph.
All My Pretty Ones
BY ANNE SEXTON
Father, this year’s jinx rides us apart
where you followed our mother to her cold slumber;
a second shock boiling its stone to your heart,
leaving me here to shuffle and disencumber
you from the residence you could not afford:
a gold key, your half of a woolen mill,
twenty suits from Dunne’s, an English Ford,
the love and legal verbiage of another will,
boxes of pictures of people I do not know.
I touch their cardboard faces. They must go.
But the eyes, as thick as wood in this album,
hold me. I stop here, where a small boy
waits in a ruffled dress for someone to come …
for this soldier who holds his bugle like a toy
or for this velvet lady who cannot smile.
Is this your father’s father, this commodore
in a mailman suit? My father, time meanwhile
has made it unimportant who you are looking for.
I’ll never know what these faces are all about.
I lock them into their book and throw them out.
This is the yellow scrapbook that you began
the year I was born; as crackling now and wrinkly
as tobacco leaves: clippings where Hoover outran
the Democrats, wiggling his dry finger at me
and Prohibition; news where the Hindenburg went
down and recent years where you went flush
on war. This year, solvent but sick, you meant
to marry that pretty widow in a one-month rush.
But before you had that second chance, I cried
on your fat shoulder. Three days later you died.
These are the snapshots of marriage, stopped in places.
Side by side at the rail toward Nassau now;
here, with the winner’s cup at the speedboat races,
here, in tails at the Cotillion, you take a bow,
here, by our kennel of dogs with their pink eyes,
running like show-bred pigs in their chain-link pen;
here, at the horseshow where my sister wins a prize;
and here, standing like a duke among groups of men.
Now I fold you down, my drunkard, my navigator,
my first lost keeper, to love or look at later.
I hold a five-year diary that my mother kept
for three years, telling all she does not say
of your alcoholic tendency. You overslept,
she writes. My God, father, each Christmas Day
with your blood, will I drink down your glass
of wine? The diary of your hurly-burly years
goes to my shelf to wait for my age to pass.
Only in this hoarded span will love persevere.
Whether you are pretty or not, I outlive you,
bend down my strange face to yours and forgive you.
Anne Sexton, “All My Pretty Ones” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). Copyright © 1981 by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr. Reprinted with the permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.
It’s been my good fortune over the past year to teach a class on “Poetry and Photography” via the Camera Club’s ongoing education series. To be honest, though I have an MFA in poetry, my knowledge of photography was spotty at best. Having now done the class three times, I feel like I’ve had my own education on how photography works and how it correlates to my own creative process. So much of our work in the class involves talking about the similarities between the two art forms and the majority of the writing prompts we use are simply ways to use poetry—specifically, the writing of poetry—as a way to interpret, examine, and respond to photography. As it turns out, this is really nothing new. There is a ton of amazing poetry specifically about photography and one could easily assemble an entire anthology based solely on poems that respond to photos (someone should do that, if they haven’t already).
Like I said, teaching this class has been a powerful learning experience for me. Not only have I gained a new appreciation and perspective on photography, I’ve also been able to meet and work with some amazingly talented human beings (several of whom have now taken the class more than once). Since the folks at the Camera Club have kindly asked me to be a guest blogger this month, I’m using this space to post some poems that we’ve read in our class, as well as some images and videos that somehow relate to the topic. I’ll also be using it as a space to simply share some poems that I love.
If this somehow piques your curiosity, the “Poetry and Photography” class will be happening again later this month, beginning on October 28th. Please look HERE for information on how to sign up.
As a way of getting started, here is a Sharon Olds poem that we read in the class. This is kind of a perfect example of a poem that seeks to unpack the hidden meanings and personal ramifications that remain locked inside of a photograph.
I Go Back to May 1937
BY SHARON OLDS
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
Sharon Olds, “I Go Back to May 1937” from Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002. Copyright © 2004 by Sharon Olds. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Source: Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)
And here’s a photo of Sharon Olds. She is amazing.
Rosângela Rennó, Río-Montevideo (2011)
Brazilian artist and photographer Rosângela Rennó (b. Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 1962) explores in a systematic way historical objects with the aim of contextualizing them in its time and place, working obsessively since the 1980s with visual archives as her “raw material.” In 2011, she was invited to do a residency at the Centro de Fotografía (CdF) of Montevideo, Uruguay, from which resulted the show Río-Montevideo.
Captivated with optical obsoleted objects, this exhibit consisted in 14 slide projectors that show images taken by photographer Aurelio González between 1957 and 1973. The fascinating story of this archive goes like this: In 1973, with the arrival of the military dictatorship in Uruguay that lasted until 1985, González (during that time Director of Photography of the newspaper El Popular) gathered more than 60.000 photographic negatives he had made for the newspaper and hid them between the floors of a building in Montevideo. Soon after, the military dictatorship shot down the newspaper and this material remained hidden and then lost for more than 33 years, until it was found and finally recovered by the same photographer in 2006. Since then the negatives have been processed, restored and digitalized by CdF. When invited to do a residency, Rennó worked with this archive for almost two months.
According to the curator Verónica Cordero, “this work is addressing new ways to look at history; utilizing optical apparatus that are also on their way to be discarded and forgotten, Rennó’s work explores matters related to memory, oblivion, identity and its mechanism of obfuscation.”
Rennó in her own words:
“The story was fascinating from the beginning. The possibility to work from an archive that was hidden and latent for more than 30 years was something that I, that I’m obsessive, wanted to put my hands in and becoming part of this story. It is an archive that is loaded with history, on the most part images of the dictatorship times that feel like ghosts to me, as I lived the Brazilian dictatorship during my childhood.”
Teresa Margolles, PM (2010)
Polemical artist Teresa Margolles (b. Culiacán, Mexico, 1974) strategically turned to the local tabloid PM in Mexico to collect its front pages, which portray Mexico’s drug war dead without any sort of censorship. Margolles, who began her career as an artist with the collective SEMEFO (from the Spanish acronym for Forensic Medical Service), has taken the subject of death as her principal subject since the beginning of her artistic practice in the 1980s, which combines visual arts and performance. After 2006, when violence intensified in Mexico, she shifted her focus to the violence-ridden streets of Mexico.
Margolles’ PM (2010) is a result of collecting during one year, 2010 –which was the most violent one of Mexico’s drug war until then, ending with 25, 757 murders– the afternoon local tabloid PM, which circulates from Monday to Saturday in one of Mexico’s most violent cities, Ciudad Juárez. Each of the 313 covers were digitalized, framed and installed stacked, creating a grid pattern that fills the white walls of the exhibition spaces. In each of the covers there is a photograph of a murder depicted next to erotic advertisements. PM newspaper does not have a digital platform and the surplus of copies is destroyed every three months. That is why one of the most relevant aspects of this work comes precisely from compiling the daily repetition of the images of these violent deaths that would otherwise be forgotten.
Margolles in her own words:
“[PM newspaper] is what you wake up to, what you hang out with, what you are reading while eating breakfast in Juárez. When you’re sleeping that is what’s happening somewhere else. It’s very popular, it works to wrap the meat you take home; you use it to make piñatas for children’s parties. Even if you don’t want to touch it, you see it. It’s impossible to avoid what’s happening in society. It’s a sensationalist newspaper but the number of dead bodies is real.”
Milagros de la Torre, The Lost Steps (1996)
Milagros de la Torre (b. Lima, Peru, 1965), a Peruvian artist based in New York, has dealt with issues of censorship and violence for almost twenty years, focusing on the interpretation of visual language through photography. She got a B.A. in photography at the London College of Printing in 1991, and soon after (in 1993) had her first solo show titled Sous le soleil noir (Under the Black Sun) at the Centre Nationale de la Photographie in Paris, being only twenty-eight years old. Ever since she has work on what she calls “interpretative conceptual photography.” Los Pasos Perdidos (The Lost Steps) is a series of fifteen images of objects that were used as criminal evidence and are now stored at the Palace of Justice in Lima. Each image contains a small inscription that describes where the object photographed comes from, the story that each object is hiding.
De la Torre in her own words:
“The Lost Steps are photographs of apparently innocent every day objects that were submitted as evidence in trials for terrorists acts, crimes of passion and other felonies. The work references a 19th century photographic technical limitation, when the development of the lens did not entirely covered the format of the photographic negative, hence creating a dark aura around the object, conferring on it a halo of mystery or emotional charge that eludes to the dark side of human nature embedded in these objects. This halo visually directs our eyes to the objects themselves. Objects are charged with human experience, and they are seen as depositories of meaning. When I was working on The Lost Steps series I carried and place these testimonial materials in front of the camera. There was an indiscernible density to them, a certain weight; they have been witnesses of some extreme event, they contain hidden crucial details. There’s a feeling that they are not just a peace of paper or a police mask but something else hidden behind. Only when one read’s a small police-like description placed under each image, is when one begins to understand when the object comes from.”
 Taken from an interview by Javier Díaz Guardiola. The English translation is mine. http://javierdiazguardiola.blogspot.com/2014/03/entrevista-teresa-margolles.html
According to Mexico’s Senate, between three or four children disappear every hour in the country due to the following causes: 67%, illegal abduction of parents in conflict with each other; 9.3%, voluntary absence (victims leave home because of domestic violence or sexual abuse from parents or other members of the family); 9.3%, theft; 2.3%, minor gets lost because of parents neglect; 1.2%, kidnap. The remaining 10.9% stands for children that went missing due to an “undetermined cause,” which means that one day they simply “disappear.” 
Lost Child (2005-2009) by Mexican artist Ilán Lieberman (b. Mexico City, 1969), is a series composed of one hundred small-scale portraits of missing children in Mexico. These portraits, measuring approximately 1 x 0.82 inch each, are meticulous hand-made reproductions of photographs originally found in the section “Far Away From Home” of Metro, a Mexico City local newspaper. Each of the photographs is published with basic information of the child –age, height, distinguishing characteristics, and the place and date of his or her disappearance– that could potentially help to recognize him or her; information that Lieberman includes as labels of each work. For example, one of the labels of the one hundred children in Lost Child reads:
Nuria Alejandra Albarrán García
Age: 13 years
Height: 4′ 11″
Distinguishing characteristics: Scar on right forearm.
Place and date of disappearance: Unidad Bellavista Neighborhood, Borough of Iztapalapa, Mexico City, June 13 2005
Each one of Lieberman’s one hundred drawings of missing children is a hand-made replica of a low-resolution photograph found in a newspaper. Instead of just doing a photocopy of a newspaper, Lieberman selects a manual format, using a microscope to capture every detail. It is noteworthy that each of these drawings took him between seven to fourteen days to complete. When Lieberman exhibits the series Lost Child he places magnifier glasses, so the viewer can get closer to the process he undertook in carefully drawing each face. With the magnifier glass one gets a chance to examine these drawings closely and see the hand-made dots that compose each work. Lieberman’s drawings focus on the particularity of each child’s facial features. This work has a strategy: individualizing each disappeared child, deifying the vagueness of statistics in a desensitized society. Lieberman says that “we pass every day by stoplights and see children begging or homeless, and they already become part of the landscape. That’s something you have to get used to when you live in Mexico.”
By choosing to do these portraits hand-made, Lieberman is relying in the permanence of the artwork, a recurrent concept that has been used by some scholars to discuss his work. According to Mexican art critic María Minera, permanence is the most important factor of the series; she argues that “That in the careful strokes goes the possibility for these photographs not to vanish in less time that one changes a page [of the newspaper]” In the same vein, critic and curator Michel Blancsubé has expressed: “The remarkable thing about this artist’s approach is the way the transition from offset to pencil on paper, from printed page to work of art, brings permanence to something initially utterly lacking in it.” What these critics are suggesting is not that a newspaper, as a medium, is impermanent (a newspaper, if taken good care of, could last for a very long time) but that, given its periodicity, it is usually inspected in a hurry, sometimes without really being read, and thrown away day after day.
One can find a reaction towards transience or ephemerality in Lost Child, since it criticizes the way in which the issue of the missing children is perceived in a mechanically reproduced medium, where this particular issue is consumed like any other subject-matter, without the proper attention it deserves.
For more on Lost Child visit this link:
 “Pasamos todos los días por los semáforos y vemos niños o indigentes que piden limosna, y ya se nos hace parte del paisaje. Eso es algo a lo que uno tiene que acostumbrarse al vivir en México”, says Lieberman. Sergio R. Blanco, “Los niños perdidos de Lieberman,” Reforma, May 24, 2009.
 “Que en sus trazos minuciosos va la posibilidad de que esas fotografías no se desvanezcan en menos de lo que se cambia la página [del periódico].” María Minera, “Fotografías hechas a mano,” Letras Libres 123 (March 2009): 74.
 Michel Blancsubé, “Confusion Will Be My Epitaph,” in Esquiador en el fondo de un pozo, ed. Michel Blancsubé (Ecatepec de Morelos, Estado de México: Colección Jumex 2006), 269.
In The Language of the Dead (2012), Mexican conceptual artist Carlos Amorales (Mexico City, 1970) turns shocking photographs of Mexico’s drug-war dead found online into characters of a photo novel. This photographic novel is composed by fifteen black and white pages in which photographs of dead people, bodiless heads among them, speak to one another. The dead are given the possibility to speak through speech bubbles, but only to speak an indecipherable, inaccessible language to us –all of us who remain alive and dare to look.
The Language of the Dead could remind us of a cemetery, of that “other city” according to Foucault. But the cemeteries, those macabre spaces located outside city borders, are generally considered to be “resting places.” Contrarily, in this work the dead seem to be coming back to life. More than anything, the photo novel is a sort of scrap yard, says Amorales, a place “in which we only see mutilated or wounded corpses,” living in a state of “limbo,” in a place that does not belong to the living.
In the following interview, Amorales explains his work process, his motivations, and the emotional aftermath of dealing which such violent content:
How did the project of the photo novel The Language of the Dead start? What led you to start compiling these brutal images from Mexico’s media?
While fragmenting my decade-long visual archive (titled Archivo Líquido) into a series of abstract images I got the idea to arrange them into a typographic system. The typographic system allowed me to build abstract texts that can be decoded (they’re cryptograms), but to the naked eye they are indecipherable, they seem made with a font based on the images of the Rorschach cards. Given the incomprehensible aspect of the signs, it occurred to me to do a photo novel about something that I also didn’t quite understand: the violence that erupted after the arrival of President Calderón to power in Mexico in 2006. My feeling was, and still is, that the more I read and get informed about the violence of recent years, the less I understand. This inability to understand made me associate the typographic signs with the photographs of violence, and fantasize that this language could be that of the dead.
There is a photograph by Jeff Wall in which one sees a squad of Russian soldiers rising after they had just been killed in combat in Afghanistan. There is something comical and disturbing about that image –maybe the feeling that awakens is the idea of a kind of meaningless life after a violent death, and that is what inspired me to make such a grotesque piece. In The Language of the Dead there only appear bodies that were shot or mutilated, we don’t see anyone alive. The narrative takes place in a world that is not of the alive; it takes place in another world. Since the bodies, or fragments of them, are lying on the floor, the only action which they can embark is to speak. In this narrative/temporal sense, the events are only potential because the subjects may or may not be waking up, may or may not get up and walk. It’s the beginning of something, but what is about to happen is not yet clear.
Can you talk about the process of selecting the images? What sort of criteria did you employed?
I collected as many images I was able to find on the Internet about the violence of recent years in Mexico. Of all the images, I chose those in which only dead people appeared. I also selected certain images that function more as signs: the gunned cars, the broken glasses, etc. Then I printed the images and photocopy them to 1) take away their color, and 2) mitigate the harshness of the images by making the photographs lose their realistic quality.
Did you use pictures from particular media?
From several media, from Proceso magazine to El blog del Narco, or even more obscure blogs that I encountered along the way. The pornography of violence is similar to sexual pornography; it’s everywhere and is very accessible.
Given the unstoppable cascade of deaths in Mexico (about 120,000), did you feel the need to make a political work that criticizes the bellicose policies of Calderón’s administration? Did you have the intention that your work could contribute to the effort of providing “justice” to the victims?
I don’t think my work does any justice to the victims. That is something that the government and the criminal groups have to do, and it’s not the artist’s responsibility. To think otherwise seems stupid and even dangerous. I did felt the need to criticize but from the point of view of an ordinary citizen who was (and still is) being bombed with this mediated information that has generated a culture of terror that affects us all. Calderón was the one that irresponsibly triggered this huge slaughter and its unfolding in the media, but the problem is old and is ongoing. I just made my comment based on my experience as being subject to the information that the media published. That’s why I worked with these images and sequenced them in a medium that is a hybrid of a photo novel and a newspaper.
Did you have any ethical problem with exposing these images, that are so brutal?
Yes, of course. They are horrible and one cannot help but be aware of that. The macabre aspect of these images awakens a sense of shame similar to the one that is awakened by hard-core pornography. I can illustrate this by saying that I had to process these images and form the pages of the photo novel always at night, to prevent my young children from seeing them. Also, after spending several hours a day processing these images in order to abstract its harshness, I felt a very particular taste and smell, like blood impregnated in my mouth and throat. The images also affected my dreams, as I woke up with a feeling similar to that of a hangover, a strange and depressive hangover. The effect was very disturbing. That’s why it gave me so much happiness to finally sent everything to print, closed the file, and put an end to this work.
For more images of The Language of the Dead visit this link: