My noon had come to dine

Visible only in the tropics – that is, in the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn – this is the zenith passage or Lahaina noon: the moment when the sun is directly overhead and an object standing vertically will cast no shadow. In the tropics it comes twice a year: when the sun is on its way north to the Tropic of Cancer (which it will reach at the summer solstice) and when it is on its way back south to the Tropic of Capricorn (which it will reach at the winter solstice). In Hawaii, where I took this picture today, the dates are in May and July.

And the picture’s title comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson, “I had been hungry all the years.”

Technical note: in memory of the online library

In 2012 the Emily Dickinson International Society inaugurated a series of online publications called New Directions in Dickinson Studies. Unfortunately, members of the society showed little interest and the series came to an end in 2013.

I posted an article there myself in 2012, and it’s still up on the site’s page at http://newdirectionsindickinsonstudies.org/?m=201211. However, all of its image links are now broken. To spell out what that means: it got published with peer review (good!), and fast, unlike paper publication (good!) — but now it can’t be read (as if every library that held it had burned down!). So, academic types:

do your students refuse to buy textbooks because they think everything is online?

Do your administrators say they don’t need libraries because they think everything is online?

If your answer to either of those questions is Yes, then please join me as we all say as loudly as we can, to students and administrators and Silicon Valley / Wall Street “reformers”:

There’s a moral there.

And here, a tiny dandelion timidly sprouting in the ashes of the library, is my article with its links intact.

 

Our Gnome revised with bio-1 Our Gnome revised with bio-2 Our Gnome revised with bio-3 Our Gnome revised with bio-4 Our Gnome revised with bio-5 Our Gnome revised with bio-6 Our Gnome revised with bio-7 Our Gnome revised with bio-8 Our Gnome revised with bio-9

Asks air silence; seeks sign

In his Amherst years, David Todd (1855-1939) had been the astronomer who almost but not quite discovered the moons of Mars. He was also the husband of Mabel Loomis Todd, who became first the mistress of Emily Dickinson’s brother and then the first editor of Dickinson’s poems and letters. It was David, an obsessive record-keeper, who induced Mabel to start keeping the sex diary which in later years made her one of the heroines of Peter Gay’s The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud — specifically volume 1, the volume subtitled Education of the Senses.

By 1924, David was in retirement, living out his years in a discontinuous series of mental hospitals. In August of that year, however, he was at liberty, and perhaps he was able then to catch the ear of President Coolidge, an Amherst alumnus. At any rate, here he is in Washington on August 21, 1924, with a démarche to Mars, an apparatus for recording the response, and (in the rear) the inventor of the apparatus, the radio pioneer C. Francis Jenkins.

And here is the report he filed from Mars.

And with those words “freak which we can’t explain,” this chapter in the history of air silence came to an end. Ever since, the static noises of freak have been equally a part of air silence’s language with explanation and poem.

Weekly World News, July 6, 1999

But back in Amherst Miss Dickinson’s three apparatuses were tuned to receive silence, only. Mrs. Todd used to visit her house and play Bach for her on her piano, but she saw Miss Dickinson’s face only once: in her coffin. In memory of piano, house, and long prepared deathbed, then,

this antenna array.

Sources:

Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Volume 1: Education of the Senses. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Polly Longsworth, Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984.

“Dr. David Todd & C. F. Jenkins, 8/21/24.” National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/npc2007011972/. Photoshopped. The image is also discussed at http://www.shorpy.com/node/12482.

Estampe XVI: blemish

In waters off Chicago the 1901 race for the Canada’s Cup is on, and judges on board the yacht Pathfinder are recording the progress of its history. From a distance, a man with a black curtain over his head watches the racers as they move upside-down across ground glass in an apparatus belonging to the Detroit Photographic Company. Between it and the boatload of judicial sportsmen rides another craft, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Morrill, and off Morrill’s quarter can be seen one of the yachts competing for the cup, the American Cadillac of Detroit or the Canadian Invader.

On Morrill’s lower deck some sailors have grouped themselves into a pyramidal composition signifying youth and eagerness. Over the course of the century that is beginning around them, their pose will be restruck again and again, in posters and movies and wartime photoessays in a magazine that will comprehensively call itself Life. As of 1901, however, the sailors and their way of being in the body haven’t yet become a cliché. Just now they are only angled over the rail that way because they want to see the race. Immediately influenced only by the physical law that prevents two objects from occupying the same space at the same time, the array of sailors’ bodies immediately communicates nothing more than subjection to force. During the open-shuttered instant of that communication, the sailors’ entry in the historical record need be read only innocently.

Innocence also seems to govern the rest of the image. It’s an image of events unfolding by game plan in accordance with a kind of prehistory, but during a single instant in 1901 a shutter opened and closed on the sequence and demarcated it from time. The shutter was open for only a fraction of a second, and when it closed it separated the time now secured in the camera from time’s slow accretions of win and loss, closure of the record book and judgment, good and evil.

Here, then, during the innocent instant before the close, the judges on Pathfinder are executing historiography under a pair of delicately rigged awnings. Atop Morrill’s bridge ride more observers of the yacht speeding from right to left across the negative. These observers, three civilian men and an officer, are depicted in costumes and body language connoting a dignified connection with the boys below them. Filled full with its boys and men (and, by my count, one woman), Morrill displays itself to the light under some such name as “diorama” or “microscosm.” In the light, before the camera that has been waiting for it per plan, it models a life as regulated as the universe. Black smoke tumbles from its funnel and a white wake streams behind. Inside the white hull, men we can’t see are busily at the boat’s work. Outside, the Great Lakes’ waves are their customary tidy selves. On the shore of Lake Erie a month later, the President of the United States will die at the hands of an assassin and a team of surgeons, but here on the water of Lake Michigan this August day, everything that the camera is capable of recording appears shipshape.

However, this particular shipshape happens to be blemished. Click the image to enlarge it and you’ll see: at either end of the line marking the horizon, somebody in 1901 touched the image’s gelatin matrix and marked it with the print of a finger or (I’d guess, as I think of the surgeons probing President McKinley’s abdominal wound with ungloved fingers and then try to visualize how a man in 1901 would hold a wet 8-by-10 inch glass negative) a thumb. The cute little freshwater waves, the tumbling smoke, the pretty boats, the eager young men, everything that filled this fraction of a second of the Detroit Publishing Company’s place in the chronicle of 1901, were intended to fill a sheet of hard transparent permanent glass to overflowing with photography, from margin to margin, instantly. That instantaneous filling is the unique trait of being in time that Emily Dickinson realized on behalf of photography when she said, “Forever is composed of nows.” But here a pair of thumbs has come blundering into the forever, birthmarking the glass with two smudges left by the not photographic.

You see what a problem that is: the thumbs have become a permanent, physical part of a conceptual record where they don’t belong. The record was intended to immobilize time forever in a realized idea of light and shadow and silver halide crystals. Then, however, two thumbs supplemented it with the illiterate X-marks of life. More, and something terrible: those marks are now as clear and as permanent as anything on this plate that was recorded by the camera. Made hard and historical by the chemistry of fossilization, they require us to see them in the same way we see the boats and the waves. But they can only be seen. Unlike the images of the boats, they can’t be interpreted because they aren’t a part of any record. Off the record, the only power they possess is the power to remain silent in the face of question, communicating nothing. As Wallace Stevens observed of the guest of honor at a funeral,

If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.

The Chicago Tribune’s record of the Morrill event is less a photograph album than a sentimental movie in two scenes, segueing from a captain yelling on his bridge to a yachtsmen’s chorus singing “Hear, hear” back on land.

The ability to segue is what enables a movie or an epic poem to turn what is seen into narrative. Photographs and lyric poems don’t command this power to create sequence and story. Because they are unmoving amid the flow of time, they can do nothing with remembered events but illustrate and exemplify. But one August afternoon in 1901, a blemish moved itself so far into a photograph that the photograph took on the blemish’s property of warm, soiled life. Its glassy image has been tainted ever since by life’s grease spot of the mortal.

You could call that a spoiler alert. It gives away the surprise ending in which a photograph turns into a story.

Sources

“The revenue cutter Morrill and yacht Pathfinder.” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994004837/PP/. Photoshopped.

“Canadians Win Back Their Cup.” Chicago Tribune 15 August 1901: 4. http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1901/08/15/

Emily Dickinson, “Forever is composed of nows,” Fr690.

Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”