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.”
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.”


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”


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).
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.


Waiting for a plane, somebody has second thoughts about being human

In an art of movement we have no reason to devote our particular attention to contemporary man.

The machine makes us ashamed of man’s inability to control himself, but what are we to do if electricity’s unerring ways are more exciting to us than the disorderly haste of active men and the corrupting inertia of passive ones?

Saws dancing at a sawmill convey to us a joy more intimate and intelligible than that on human dance floors.

For his inability to control his movements, WE temporarily exclude man as a subject for film.

Our path leads through the poetry of machines, from the bungling citizen to the perfect electric man.

Dziga Vertov, “WE: Variant of a Manifesto” (1922). 100 Artists’ Manifestos From the Futurists to the Stuckists, ed. Alex Danchev (London: Penguin, 2011), 213-14.


The acknowledgment section of Alex Danchev’s valuable anthology is human in a way that makes you want to applaud Vertov’s chorus line of dancing saws. Most but by no means all of Danchev’s bibliographical citations are set down in the order of their authors’ appearance in the book, without page numbers, and if his Vertov chapter has a named translator or source, I lost them in the confusion. No doubt: if you want your book orderly and alphabetical, with no acting out in the front matter, your best bet is to ask a machine.

Generalizing from what he saw, Dziga Vertov renamed his thinking apparatus “Kinok” (kino + oko + chelovek, “movie + eye + man”) in order to suggest that machines can fly us free from the limitations of our own clumsy humanity. Vertov also happened to live in a society where it appeared for a while that the commissars understood machines that way too. Certainly they did speak in machine language.


V. Dobrovolsky (1939), “Long live the mighty air force of the land of socialism!”
Click to enlarge.


For the word aviatsiya in this poster’s caption, the Russian-English dictionaries I consulted offered me a choice between “aviation” and “aircraft,” and I adopted “air force” only after correction and contextualization by the Slavicists posting under the names of Hat and Moskva at (comment stream, 8 May 2011 post “The Little Seagulls.” Thanks!) But before I had gotten even that far, I was uncertain about Da zdravstvuyet, the imperative that starts the image’s caption. Long live the air force? Your health, air force? That would be the literal translation. No doubt the idiom works better in Russian, a language with grammatical gender where airplanes are masculine. ¡Viva!

However, this moth-shaped little red airplane does seem to be unambiguously alive, doesn’t it? To a Russian in 1939, to a Dziga Vertov, it would even have a claim on the family’s love, a name, and a nickname: the Polikarpov I-16 “Donkey,” stalwart in the Republican air force during the Spanish civil war. But we don’t need to be part of the family to think that those cute little wings are flapping as they bring the airplane up to our face for a kiss. Down on the ground, unable to see or understand the kiss, grownups are marching in neat rectangular blocks that pass around the Kremlin and then drift into larger blocks like floes in a river. We can’t see individual faces there, but we don’t need to. Formed into squads at ground level, they are the base that supports a single airborne image, and down there they’re interchangeable with any other rubble.

At the beginning of Triumph of the Will, the shadow of Hitler’s
airplane (circled) descends over a pavement of marching Nazis.


But we who wait for the little red airplane are watching from a high branch, far above the adult flagstone. We are in the airplane’s nest, and the little airplane is flapping its mighty way home to us.

Dziga Vertov called that emotionally charged machine motion kinchestvo, a word that translates as something like “movieness.” It was his way of imagining the body language of a society fully socialist. As an image, his conception could have looked something like Alexander Rodchenko’s famous poster for Eisenstein’s Potemkin: a dynamic geometry from which the human has been expelled: dumped over the side to drown in a stern Euclidean cosmos.


“Battleship Potemkin. Director, S. M. Eisenstein.
Cinematographer, Eduard Tisse.”


But not long after 1925, the year of Potemkin, the social geometries of Rodchenko and Vertov were suppressed in favor of the paysage moralisé of Socialist Realism. Rodchenko and Vertov envisioned a universe liberated from the human, or at least liberated from what the human had been until the Bolshevik Revolution, but Socialist Realism loved its machines in a cozier way. Socialist Realism inhabits a Disneyfied cosmos, and the simplifying single-point perspective prevailing there welcomes vision in and then lovingly prevents it from escaping.

The words in Rodchenko’s battleship poster have become part of the battleship. They are weapons, and they have struck the falling officer. He is now about to fall through the image plane and vanish. The arc of his fall teaches a geometry of terror. But in the Socialist-Realist universe there is no such teaching. It is not allowable. There, beyond a horizon drawn through the human, nothing may be conceived. Beyond the state, visualized as a march in ranks around the Kremlin and then back and around again, nothing. Beyond visual forms conceived in literary terms, as characters in a fable situated in space by a moral caption (THE LAND OF SOCIALISM!), nothing.

Likewise, for policy reasons: after the pure kinchestvo of Vertov’s Man with Movie Camera (1929), nothing. Man with Movie Camera is a dance of saws, but the last of Vertov’s Three Songs About Lenin (1934) is nothing but a twenty-minute version of the Kazakh national anthem at the end of Borat. Like the poster depicting mighty aircraft moved like marionettes along the illusion lines of perspective, Three Songs about Lenin is flat. It cannot move toward us or away from us. It is held flat against its screen by men in uniforms.

But the history of its flattening comes to us now with a cheerful moral, delivered airmail. In what’s called historical actuality, the cute little Polikarpov I-16 was an efficient dealer of death: “the world’s first cantilever-winged monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear,” according to Wikipedia. Man with Movie Camera probably has the power to destroy too, just like Rodchenko’s gun shapes. But the change from Rodchenko’s primary forms to Dobrovolsky’s aerobiedermeier tells us that after just one look at the poetry of machines, the commissars decided that they much preferred the comic books of the human.

Reflex and wonder

I’ve written about it before: a block from my house there’s a playground with a soccer field where cattle egrets forage. As the big riding lawnmower makes its rounds there, they follow it, pacing off the greenness in silent, dignified strides.

As I was picking up my newspaper this morning, I heard a loud noise, looked up from the lawn, and saw that I was abreast of a semi-trailer hauling the lawnmower away. Behind and above the trailer, flapping hard, followed one of the egrets, keeping up as best he could. For about a block more he continued, but then the truck picked up speed and left him behind.

Alone, the bird made a turn, soared to treetop level, and rose, white into white-clouded blue. I remembered what I had learned about Pavlov’s dogs and Lorenz’s geese and nature’s school where we learn motive and desire, but the white arc hinted that there may always be an unknown, somewhere in the air, to fill us with surprise and love.