Photo of Home From Home
by Richard Deutch
I used to leave this granite house
after everyone else was asleep,
and, walking down the hill, come to the
woods just behind you snapped
this photo, old friend, who think I can bear
to look at it.
The full moon loomed so close
I’d think I could reach out and gather it
into folds, until I noticed
one star fallen out of the side,
blinking to know where it was,
dead probably, by then, or now.
One night when I was seven
I stood in the dining room, staring
at the decanter on the drinks cart
shining like fool’s gold, its liquor smelling
of honey and rosin, belly flat
as mother’s breast
as she lay back to sleep beside me.
Later, I caught the moon,
through the dormer window nearest the spot
this photo was taken, a crescent
chunk of old ice.
From Heart, with Piano Wire
by Richard Deutch.
Copyright © 2002 by Richard Deutch. Reprinted by permission of Bright Hill Press. All rights reserved.
missing boys voice heard in forest
the whole holler spreads itself out like a blanket, a crawling
fire-line of anxious ants, moving into what might as well be
a universe of green, swaying over their heads, moving
to the nighttime music of leave-rustling and branch creaking that could muffle
even the loudest where are you or the most anguished yell
if you can hear us
a boy has gone missing, wandered inexplicably from a campfire and been snatched up
by the tree limbs, carried into the black of a forest that swells into an impossible horizon
we could hear him, the mother says, for hours we could hear him, but we couldn’t
the local news will report that others will hear the voice as well
over the sound of tree-sways and dog barks, between the crossing beams
of a million searching flashlights, many will hear it and go looking
the ones who heard him—swear that they did–recalled
his voice was so close, like he was calling and calling
from a place just out of sight or, somehow, up in the sky
to some, he had screamed, to others, it was laughter
they heard through the branches. and for others
the voice they heard was high and sweetly distant, held up
somewhere in the trees, as if
he is singing
years later, children will come to that spot
where a boy wandered off and never got found, the spot
where dirt paths reluctantly give way to a million tangled miles of Appalachian green
they will hear his voice—a distant, clear plea
and they will go into the woods to find him
-T. Cole Rachel
photo by Rhi Ellis
see more HERE
In the past we listened to photographs. They heard our voice speak.
Alive, active. What had been distance was memory. Dusk came,
Pushed us forward, emptying the laboratory each night undisturbed by
In the city of X, they lived together. Always morose, her lips
soothed him. The piano was arranged in the old manner, light entered the
window, street lamps at the single tree.
Emotion evoked by a single light on a subject is not transferable to
photographs of the improved city. The camera, once
commented freely amid rivering and lost gutters of treeless parks or avenue.
The old camera refused to penetrate the unknown. Its heart was soft,
Now distributed is photography of new government building. We are
forbidden to observe despair silent in old photographs.
Barbara Guest, “Photographs” from Miniatures and Other Poems. Copyright © 2003 by Barbara Guest. Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
Found photograph via Internet K-Hole
One of the most successful–and the most popular–exercises in our Poetry & Photography class involves the use of found photographs. Using randomly discovered images as a prompt, students are asked to write poems that somehow elucidate the origins of the photos. Where was this photo taken? Why? What was the context? And how do such images become lost?
I give the students a variety of websites to browse for “found” images, but by far the most popular is a blog/tumblr called Internet K-Hole. I’m still not entirely sure who curates this site or how they manage to come into possession of so many truly amazing, bizarre, hilarious, and occasional tragic photos, but every time I look at the site I can’t help but lose a huge chunk of my day. Prepare to fall down the rabbit hole…
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.