According to Christopher Busta-Peck’s blog about the history of Cleveland, this photograph depicts the moment on March 25, 1913, when flood currents drove the ship William Henry Mack into the swing bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River at West Third Street, demolishing it.
Like the prose you’re now reading, Mr. Busta-Peck’s blog is set in the font called Georgia. According to the Wikipedia article “Georgia (typeface),” this font belongs very much to the history of the computer. Its date of origin is 1993, and it was originated specifically to fill a need for legibility on low-resolution screens. There it is read by default in screen mode, the mode of prose: transparently, offering access to language’s content while making only the necessary minimum of contact with language’s form.
Mr. Busta-Peck’s Georgia-accented prose about the flood is to be accessed at http://www.clevelandareahistory.com/2009/12/floods-of-1913-in-flats.html, in a post dated December 26, 2009. But even before the flood of 1913, Ernest Fenollosa had begun insuring language against prose damage with his essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” Writing from the flood plain of English, Fenollosa recommended that a flood policy ought to be written flood-style, in “a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature.”
To Ezra Pound, who completed this unfinished essay after Fenollosa’s death, this meant writing poetry in a specifically poetic language. Pound’s preferred medium for that was the typewriter, and he famously subdued the apparatus to his poet’s will by means of James Whitcomb Riley dialect spellin’, the alienation effect of text incorporated from other languages, and two hard hits on the spacebar after every word. But at exactly the moment Pound was rolling paper into the platen for the purpose of discipline in mediation, some nameless scribes employed by the Bain News Service were composing their own “vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature” directly upon records inscribed by nature itself.
They had the records, thanks to the operation of certain photochemical processes. They needed to write their shorthand picture. They could have done that the way poets do, of course: with a typewriter or a stenographer’s notebook. But they didn’t. Instead, they laid mediating hands directly upon the negative that just a moment earlier had been flooded by reality, and in its soft gelatin emulsion, writing backwards, they inscribed. If the inscription didn’t look quite like any other human alphabet, that was because its mediation into language was incomplete. Some of its form remained untranslated, still in the language of nature. The scribes weren’t fully in command of that language because some of it remained subject to the silent, wordless grammar of musculature failing to overcome the nature of things.
The verb above, for instance, is swept away. Its lingua franca is the language of deluge, and it is inscribed in a font that could have been named Debris. You are reading it within the liquid crystal display of a monitor, but the instrument that carved it into that lightbox of yours was a stylus scratching letters onto a 5-by-7 inch glass plate named Negative. Think of a Chinese connoisseur writing a poem on a picture. He sows words and makes the picture into an image from which words grow.
Or think of somebody stepping for the first time onto the mud deposited by the subsidence of the Black Sea, picking up a handful, molding it into a tablet, picking up a twig, and beginning to write on the mud the story of Gilgamesh.
“Bridge being swept away by flood — Cleveland.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005011625/. Photoshopped.
Ernest Fenollosa, ed. Ezra Pound, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” 1918. Excerpted in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, ed. Donald M. Allen and Warren Tallman. New York: Grove Press, 1973. 13-35.
It’s a standard thing to point out in the introductory class: although Wordsworth was a nature poet, he also wrote a sonnet about London, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” whose first line is “Earth has not anything to show more fair.”
Much more typical for Wordsworth, however, is “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” whose lines overflow with a still yet ceaselessly moving
host of yellow daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
At the poem’s end, Wordsworth (or rather his sister, whose diary he raided for the description and the emotion) understands with his body what he has seen and what he is about to write down:
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
At about the time this picture was being taken, Ezra Pound, who had no respect for William Wordsworth, found himself in the Paris metro being overtaken by something like Dorothy Wordsworth’s sense of light flowing through earth and surfacing in blossom. Pound’s flowers, however, then and later, blossomed in the dark.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006001714/. Photoshopped.
Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/dc0362.photos.027542p/. Photoshopped.
Toward the end of its era, Fascism embarked on a campaign of cultural self-pity. Italy has been attacked by darkness, Fascism told Italy. Everything that Italy has inherited from its past is being violated. In the chiaroscuro, it may seem that nothing remains for us but to grieve. Our candles are out; our heads are bare and bowed before the advent of the black helmets. However, our light will return. Something that will not die bows down to us in our grief and whispers light’s vindicating truth.
But even as the black helmets were making their slow way from temple to darkened temple, the land under Italy’s temples was being cleared day by bright day from the air. Most of the bombers that came flying through the light to accomplish that task of war were Consolidated B-24s, and these bore a propaganda name of their own: Liberators.
In the sheets of light beneath liberation’s radiant onslaught, Fascist art could do nothing except to repeat its now meaningless trope of darkness. Desperate to continue depicting the trope, it once went textual and tried to supplement its now meaningless self with an explanation outside the picture:
“Liberators take liberties!”
Outside the picture, the pun is too witless even to be visualizable. But the image’s trope of darkness retains some meaning nevertheless. Seventy years after the fall of Fascism in Italy, it still speaks to the politics of the United States. It does so because it articulates a myth, and myths are hard to make die.
After all, there can be no light without darkness. That is one sense of the myth of Pluto and Persephone.
That myth says: Light goes down into the underworld and is reborn there from death to life. This will be the happy ending of the art-stories of the looted church and the rape which has been redeemed for art by a successfully understood allusion to Italy’s cultural heritage. When he wrote the history of anecdotes such as those, Ezra Pound was fond of using the word splendor, which means brilliance or radiance. But a splendor returned from the underworld has been in that which is dark, and when it reascends it can never again be immaculate. Bearing shadows within the folds of its mantle, splendor must bring darkness back with it. At nightfall, splendor’s darkness will rejoin the primal dark. Then, after morning comes, we may pick up our brushes once again, seventy years later, and charge them once again with black.
At the present linguistic moment, the Pound-word “heritage” is one shade of that black. Spoken today by reenactors remaking themselves as ghosts on battlefields, it is a word that darkness has taken to itself and refashioned as a mode of immortal yet unliving form.
Look at heritage’s eyes. Look at its pointed fingers delicately touching its slender musket. Understand, as you look, the lesson that heritage is wordlessly teaching you: the lesson that darkness, having once been comprehended by art and shaped by it into myth, can never wholly return, forgotten, to the past and to death.
Sources: the Italian propaganda posters come from a collection at http://ic.pics.livejournal.com. The image of the B-24 comes from a site for airplane modelers, Wings Palette, at http://wp.scn.ru. Its Russian caption translates as, “98th Battle Group, Libya, 1943. Shot down August 1, 1943, by [Bulgarian] Lieutenant Stoyan Stoyanov.”
The image “Unidentified soldier in Confederate uniform with bayoneted musket and knife” is in the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014646219/.
All images photoshopped.