Planes; a blackbird

1

Jack Delano, January 1941,
“Commuters, who have just come off the train,
waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass.”
Library of Congress http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsac.1a33849/
Click to enlarge.

As if their picture with its rounded corners were an aquarium, the commuters are pressed against the image’s front plane. Their heights are almost uniform, and so are their colors and shapes: dark and boxy, in the somber fashion of their era. Behind them is a black wall, and behind that wall their train has gone away. On the roof and on the ground around them, the snow will never melt. Off to the right of the frame, their bus will never arrive. The winter light is dying along the shaft that bears an unlighted lamp. It is the only part of this composition that is not exactly like every other part. The image has allocated its space with absolute uniformity. Nothing in it will ever change again. A dark afternoon has become forever.

 

2

Detroit Publishing Company, about 1910,
“River packet Charles H. Organ landing at Mound City.”
Library of Congress, via http://www.shorpy.com/node/10552

Here in parallelogram-shaped Tennessee, the right side of what you see is human bustle. The man sitting on his boiler is paired off with a woman dressed like a clipper ship under studding sails, and the horse who is looking on is ready to leap into motion.

Just behind them, their picture world is busy with another motion: up and down.

But off to the left, two trees have quietly slipped away to take a dip in the river.

Motion in more than one plane as fulfillment of a divided composition. At a snowy curb in New England, the sad losing struggle of color against darkness, but here along a sunny southern river, the great simplification of black and white. The point where the boat has come to its stop is the place of happy ending.

 

3

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a New England poem by a man who lived in Connecticut but loved the South. Another of his poems begins, “I placed a jar in Tennessee,” and a second is about a woman walking along the shore in Key West and singing the warm Florida night into starry order. Language’s way of making the flying blackbird one with the moving river is a third ordering: a simplification of the sad confusions of the colored world into an arrangement purely external to man, like the silver halide crystals on a glass plate just removed from one of the Detroit Publishing Company’s big wooden cameras. At water’s edge and on into the water with the trees, here along a sunny southern river, you have been given black to look at, and its negation, white. What more did you think there could be to desire?

 

 

Administrative: no more comments for now

Like at least one other WordPress blogger, I’m now being flooded by a stream of bot-generated comment spam, presumably intended to generate clicks and revenue (but not for me). A few of these spams are the mysterious kind that consist only of random letters, but most are vague, inane compliments along the line of “Thank you for solving this problem” (what problem?). All of the complimentary correspondents have two things in common: they have only first names, and for some mysterious reason they can’t spell the word “thanks.”

Well, WordPress asks me if these things are spam, I say yes, and then WordPress makes them disappear. It’s been annoying to keep doing this, so for now I’ve blocked all comments on “The Art Part.” But if anything I write on this blog inspires you, please e-mail me and I’ll pass your word along.

Blue joke

Pulled up from the archive of the Bain News Service, the couple look around at the borders of their image: he to his left, she to her right. Their negative is labeled “Brookes,” but Bain’s caption card is labeled with a misspelling: “Norman Brooks and wife.”

http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain/16604
Click to enlarge.

 

The Library of Congress, which now holds this trace of Mr. and Mrs Brookes, notes that the caption card is also undated. Between us and the past, there isn’t always a traversable way in the archive. However, a number in what looks like American date form can be seen within this archived image, upside down and in mirror image on Mrs. Brookes’s left arm, and Photoshop can help us at least break the code of its numeric value.

 

If this number phrase does mean “December 28, 1920,” and if it refers to the date the photograph was taken — if — then it may possess the power to recombine with other information in the archive and rebuild a small factual content. Norman Brookes, says Wikipedia, was a rich Australian businessman (1877-1968). His wife was named Mabel. Since Norman and Mabel are posed here in summer clothes and sunshine, it may be that this December photograph was taken in Australia, during the Australian summer.

More: since Norman and Mabel seem to be on board ship, the newspaper archives of an Australian port city might hold the date of their voyage. Perhaps, too, a fashion historian could take a look at the Brookeses’ clothes and say whether they were what an upper-class Australian couple would have worn in December 1920. Combined, the date and the facts about the ship and the facts about the clothes might at least place the Brookeses in a moment in their time, as in a picture.

Nevertheless, I can’t ask the only question worth asking about the picture I actually have. Yes, of course: what is that look on Mabel Brookes’s face? I’ve been killing time here in the library as people do, delaying the issue like Mr. Casaubon in order to avoid looking straight on at a woman’s face as it manifests an event — an event that may equally be something terrible or something trivial. (A sudden fear of having forgotten to pack something? A sudden horror of the heavy-jawed man looking away from her as he presses from behind against her body?) But you can understand my excuse for holding back this way to play with my solved Photoshop puzzle. At every other encoding in this history picture, there are too many indecipherables. Looking for the last time at the image with its one surviving word scrawled at the top, I can learn from it only a truth that I don’t know how to see.

*

But what if a photograph comes to me begging to be seen, begging for the chance to teach me what it is? What if it has composed itself with multiple redundancies, fail-safe equipment specifically meant to repeat a lesson, over and over, in how to see?

“Unidentified girl in mourning dress holding framed
photograph of her father as a cavalryman with sword and
Hardee hat. Digital file from original item, tonality adjusted.”
http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.36863

 

Taken during or shortly after the American Civil War, this image is a tintype: a photograph made by a popular nineteenth-century process whose prints were typically small and low-contrast but durable and inexpensive. When this particular tintype was created, however, expense probably wasn’t an issue. Before the image went on display, somebody bought an elaborate frame for it and paid to have one particular color painted in: the gold of the little girl’s locket and the cross-shaped pins that hold her two mourning ribbons to her sleeves. The idea must have been durability: the durability of a memory that can never die.

The locket, in accordance with the century’s etiquette of mourning, would quite likely have held a lock of the dead man’s hair. Its necklace appears to be of some rough fiber, but I can’t tell what: perhaps yarn braided by the little girl? or her hair, as in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”? And then, of course, within this photograph there’s another photograph: the image of the dead father himself, centering the visual composition and giving it a human meaning. We know Mabel Brookes’s name and we could learn something about her life if we tried, but we can’t know the meaning of the look on her face. “Unidentified girl in mourning dress” is exactly Mabel Brookes’s antonym. We don’t know a thing about what’s called her life, but in her picture frame she’s surrounded by a library of cultural reference stocked with all the cues we’ll need to warrant us in saying, “The little girl is sad.”

So we go ahead and say, “The little girl is sad.” It feels right, and as we say it we feel sad ourselves. It would seem mean not to. Once more, art has done its moral number on us.

But then:

“Digital photo with mat removed by Mike O’Donnell”
http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppss.00010

 

This is blue stain, an obstacle faced by photographers in the pre-digital era. In this case, it was caused by a reaction between the developing agent and the tintype’s sheet-iron backing. Art has nothing to do with it; its manifestations of itself to us are governed only by the unalterable laws of chemistry. Our art reaction, “The little girl is sad,” turns out to have been mediated by a process that the Library of Congress calls “tonality adjusted”: a protection of art and its delicacies from certain inhuman truths that the chemical reaction could have made us see.

The particular truth of this image, for instance, is that it is blue; will be, in time, nothing but blue. Like Stevens’s jar, the blue takes dominion everywhere. The little girl is being submerged in it and made as inscrutable, there below its surface, as Mabel Brookes. If we thought we understood the anecdote that the tintype was telling us about itself and its cultural matrix, we were betrayed by the faux amis of translation.

But look at the blue and sink astonished into its reservoir of wordless surprise. As Gertrude Stein said about Picasso and his discovery that a picture is not a picture of but simply an arrangement of form and color, “One sees what one sees.” Here the punchline is that one waits to see the picture go to its completion, break free of even the memory of image, and become the blue.

 

River, crying

On his Facebook page, the poet Alfred Corn plays himself as the educational version of Whitman’s Spontaneous Me: a Socrates who bestows questions, instant by instant, on the corpus of poetry. Professor Corn’s May 4 question, for example, was: “Can a poem indict or pronounce judgment and still be a good poem? Is, for example, Neruda’s poem about the United Fruit Company a good poem?”

Neruda aside, the answer is “Of course.” But on the Facebook page the exercise generated much excited brow-furrowing among the friends. The reason for the excitement may have been only pedagogical: Corn teaches modern literature, and in the here and now (any here and now) it’s hard to predict what is likely to last. Still, even here and now it wouldn’t have taken much effort to recall The Divine Comedy. If the words “poem,” “good,” and “judgment” have any meaning, then of course The Divine Comedy is a good poem, and of course it pronounces judgment. Indicting and pronouncing judgment are what saturnine temperaments do, and if someone with a saturnine temperament also happens to be a great artist — say, a Dante or a Swift or a Goya — then we’ll get great art that pronounces judgment.

So far, so sophomore survey. If it slipped the minds of Corn and his friends, the explanation may be no more shameful than a desire for unshadowed pleasantness during the act of reading. After all, garden statuary throughout the English-speaking world speaks to that desire by making a little verbal gesture of motto and performative self-description:

Click to enlarge.

At the beginning of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” Ezra Pound took uncompromising exception to this sunniness. For his own motto and and self-description, he took a long view of himself in the third person, declared that third person “out of step with his time,” and then explained in bibliographic detail:

His true Penelope was Flaubert,
He fished by obstinate isles;
Observed the elegance of Circe’s hair
Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials.

That was in 1920, and as of 2011 Pound has long since fallen into step with the academic calendar. But it seems likely that sundials and their poem are still the more convincing pacers-off of time. From their garden in 2011, sundial and poem invite us to join the orbit of Facebook and become part of its unending cycle of nervous small talk and reassuring consolation.

But the inconsolable among us may still need the poetry of judgment for the different way it teaches us to look toward the sun. Consider Psalm 137, for instance.

 


“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
From the Chludov Psalter (9th-century Byzantine).
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chludov_rivers.jpg
Photoshopped for color and sharpness

 

This river doesn’t follow the law of cycles. Its course is linear, with a beginning and an ending. It begins in the wordy cry of an uttering mouth, and it comes to an end at the margin of the parchment, where the words run out and (as the idiom has it, but usually not this literally) nothing remains to be said.

 

 

Once it has reached that wordless space, the psalm pronounces its judgment. Its penultimate verse is, “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.” In the English of the King James Version, the term “happy” has its old sense of “fortunate,” so this verse plays a grim, delphic word game with the vocabulary of gift exchange and reward. But where there are no clouds, the delphic must give up its smiling secrets. Irony evaporates from the words, they begin radiating a heat as dry as desert rock, and the psalm ends: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

When he drew those words, the artist of the Chludov psalter understood that in this text the river and the man must be one. Where there is no water cycle, every loss is irrecoverable and every word spoken is a word that is gone. Where the words run, man and river are one cry. In the light by which we read the cry, every hour is sunny.