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Split Screen: Teju Cole’s “Blind Spot”

At such moments invisible and tangible become confused.
Yves Bonnefoy, The Arrière-pays.

An open book is naturally a split screen divided by the book’s gutter, although few books actually take full advantage of this. Teju Cole’s new book Blind Spot (Random House, 2017) manages to put each of some 160 or so double-page spreads into truly astonishing dialogues between text and image. Blind Spot balances Cole’s color photographs on the right hand side with texts that are generally very brief on the left. In the texts, which are titled according to the city where the photograph was taken, Cole recounts dreams, constructs compressed essays, and meditates on travel, photography, sight, religion, and art. Occasionally these texts serve as a commentary on the photograph across the page, but for the most part Cole makes the dialogue take place somewhere else, somewhere unexpected, somewhere, shall we say, off camera. Even in texts as brief as these, Cole shows once again his trademark mental restlessness, which matches the globe-hopping list of cities where he has photographed.

Many of Cole’s photographs, including some from Blind Spot, can be seen on his website and on his Instagram account. Cole is a superb photographer with a very assured eye and a coherent body of images. Although there are a number of fine landscape images in Blind Spot, Cole is really at his best as a street photographer, following in the great tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Leavitt, Saul Leiter, and Lee Friedlander. Nearly all of his photographs create visual mysteries that are the result of either the photographer’s precise point of view or the careful framing of the image. Not surprising for a writer, his images often suggest a narrative that lies just beyond our grasp. He’s fond of images that consist of partially blocked or obscured views and unexpected juxtapositions, images that essentially flatten the world and return us to a time before linear perspective was discovered. He sees what most of us overlook daily — the mundane, the worn, the discarded.

There is no surrender of beauty, only an effort to find beauty by going past the typical and arriving at the common. . . . What I love about Bali is what I love about São Paulo, Nairobi, Seoul, Reykjavik: the material evidence of human life, which goes on in spite of the world’s enmity. In this search, an intense attachment to the beautiful remains. The sun pours itself all over the world and the world’s things. Things are being built, or repaired, or broken. Things sit in the street, free of use. Things are on the verge of speech. Ladders rise, and angels invisibly ascend and descend.

The book’s title comes from a frightening medical emergency that Cole suffered in 2011, when he woke up blind in one eye, resulting in a surgery to repair perforations in the retina. “The photography changed after that. The looking changed.”

Teju Cole, New York City

Written photo captions tend to constrict the ways in which we interpret a photograph, just as photographs buried in a text are generally there to demonstrate what something looks like. When Cole’s paired texts and images are at their best, they expand the options for understanding both text and image, forming, in his words, “chimeras made of lexical foreparts and material hind parts.” Each half of this split screen forces us to interrogate the other half for the signs that might turn these two parallel paths into a crossroad.

Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by fate, at the same time I opened Blind Spot I was already reading The Arrière-pays (Seagull Books, 2013), an indescribable, elusive text filled with photographs and reproductions of works of art by the French poet and writer Yves Bonnefoy. The “arrière-pays” (which loosely means the “back country,” although this is not how Bonnefoy uses the term). Bonnefoy’s book might be loosely described as a meditation on the relationships between language, perception, imagination, and being. At various times Bonnefoy says that the “arrière-pays” is what might be found on the road not taken or what transpires when one moves from the “inward country of . . . reveries” to the world surrounding us or what differentiates “here” from “elsewhere.” Bonnefoy’s beautiful, puzzling book opens with the sentence “I have often experienced a feeling of anxiety, at crossroads.” And as I read on I found more than one paragraph like this one, which seems to relate closely to what transpires in the conversations between text and image in Teju Cole’s book.

So that is what I dream of, at these crossroads, or a little way beyond them—and I am haunted by everything that gives credence to the existence of this place, which is and remains other, and yet which suggests itself, with some insistence even. When a road climbs upwards, revealing, in the distance, other paths among the stones, and other villages; when the train travels into a narrow valley, at twilight, passing front of houses where a window happens to light up; when the boat comes in fairly close to the shoreline, where the sun has caught a distant windowpane . . . this very specific emotion takes hold of me—I feel I’m getting close, and something tells me to be on alert.

Below: Teju Cole, Capri

 

 

The Compass that Always Points East

Mathias Énard’s Zone, which I wrote about in 2011, is one of the best written and most urgent novels that I have read in this quickly aging century. Zones Homeric scale attempts to encompass some of the twentieth century’s most critical themes within the framework of the narrator’s memories during a train ride from Milan to Rome. In Énard’s view, history is perennially unable to free itself from the eternal male infatuation with violence, warfare, and other forms of “manliness,” which  in the last century alone resulted in misery and death for hundreds of millions of people. His narrator has fought in the Balkan wars and has served in the “intelligence” community, but has finally decided to opt out, sell his secrets, and retire to safety. Zone was also Énard’s heartfelt homage to a pantheon of Modernist writers, including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and others. Written fours years after Zone, Street of Thieves was Énard’s next novel to appear in English. Using the first-person perspective of a young Muslim struggling to remain devout in a milieu of  violent radical Muslims, it seemed one-dimensional after the richness of Zone.

Compass, published in France in 2015 and just released in English by New Directions, reverts to the style of Zone. Franz Ritter is an aging scholar, a musicologist who lives in Vienna and has dedicated his life to studying the influences of “the Orient” on western classical music. He’s an erudite, cosmopolitan, old-world gentleman. He’s also an old-school Orientalist, the type of person that Edward Said critiqued in his 1978 classic Orientalism. Compass takes place during a single night when Ritter finds himself unable to sleep. Instead, he launches into an overnight voyage of fond reminiscences through a past that seemed to him fashionably risky, elegant, romantic, and, of course, full of scholarly gossip and feuding. Much of Compass is dedicated to Ritter’s warm, nostalgic memories of his Orientalist adventures, which took place in countries like Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon, but also at conferences in Vienna, Paris, and other European cities where the Orient was (and often still is) paternalistically stereotyped. One of the great pleasures of reading Compass is Énard’s astonishing command of literary, musical, historical, and other often fascinating references that pass through Ritter’s mind on this restless night. Énard manages to mention, quote, or discuss scores of composers, dozens of European and Middle Eastern writers, and an assortment of other notables that includes people as varied as Sigmund Freud and Edith Piaf, as well as many lesser known characters from history, such as the Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an Austrian Orientalist (1774-1856).

Compass is also very much a story about Ritter’s unfailing love for Sarah, a younger academic who serves as Ritter’s foil. He admits that one of the major reasons he kept returning to the Middle East was to continue his brief flirtatious encounters with Sarah. Sarah appears to be a generation younger than Ritter and thus she represents a more modern type of scholar with more of a post-colonialist perspective. Her field of study seems to revolve around colonial history and thus, to her, the “Orient” is “an imaginal construction” that the West has used to obscure and excuse its colonial attitudes toward large chunks of the world. Unlike Ritter, who admits to being something of an “armchair scholar,” Sarah is a deeply engaged researcher, living as an insider in the places she studies. She understands the ethically flawed ways in which most non-European peoples were represented by previous generations of Orientalists.

One of the mementos in Ritter’s apartment is a compass that Sarah once gave him. This compass always points east rather than north and, much to Sarah’s amusement, followed by outright laughter, Ritter cannot figure out the secret. After much teasing, Sarah finally discloses that there is a second magnet hidden under the first, forcing the top magnet to align ninety degrees differently from the bottom one. Ritter’s response makes it clear that he doesn’t understand that Sarah is making gentle fun of his obsession with the Orient. “I didn’t see the point,” is all he can manage to think.

Énard includes nine photographs in Compass, something he did not do with Zone. Significantly, they all originate with Sarah. The images of book pages, documents, and postcards are all included in scholarly papers and in a letter that Sarah sent to him and which he reads in the wee hours of his sleepless night. Each image suggests the subtle ways in which European Orientalists tried to maintain a colonizing control over their “subjects.” For example, in a letter that Sarah writes Ritter after visiting Goethe’s house museum in Germany, she encloses a photograph of the first edition of Goethe’s book West–östlicher Divan (which might be translated as West-East Poetry Collection). She points out that the Arabic title on the left-hand page is intriguingly different since it translates as “The Eastern Divan by the Western Writer,” making it clear that this is “an oriental collection composed by a man from the Occident.”

In many ways, Compass follows a blueprint established with Zone. Both novels have narrators with iffy pasts and wide-ranging encyclopedic knowledge. (Ritter might almost be the retired version of Zone‘s Francis Mirković.) Both use the compression of time and space (a train ride, a sleepless night in a small apartment) to present an infinitely expansive universe of memories, ideas, histories, and characters. But there are risks to what Énard is doing in Compass. Where Zone plunges directly into the violence of the Balkan wars, Compass politely circumvents the terrorism and wars that have plagued the Middle East for a half century. Where Zone‘s Francis Mirković personally grapples with the major issues of his time, Franz Ritter engages in polite dinner conversation with fellow scholars and the occasional seduction in fine hotels and secluded conference sites.

Ritter is uncomfortably aware that the world in which he spent most of his life has irrevocably morphed into sectarianism and violence, although these are topics he is anxious to avoid. (“Thank God the news is over, back to music,” he thinks, listening to late night radio.) And he has also experienced what it is like to become the Other in someone else’s eyes. Late in the novel, a mullah stereotypes Ritter as a Nazi simply because he is “German” and the mullah assumes Sarah is a Jew simply because of her name. Suddenly the consequences of having “the violence of identity pinned on you by the other and uttered like a condemnation…” dawns on Ritter. Ritter also is beginning to recognize that his relationship with the Orient was often conducted out of sheer “colonialist pretentiousness,” that he underestimated the Assad regime, and utterly failed to anticipate the rise of jihadism and “the throat-slitters of the Islamic State.” In hindsight, he realizes that the West’s preoccupations with “the sensuality, the violence, the pleasure, the adventures, the monsters and djinns” of the so-called Orient made it impossible to understand any of these regions, their history, and their people on their own terms. “We are prisoners of images, of representations.” But every time he has one of these revelations he quickly returns to the enticing comforts of his past.

As much as it makes for captivating reading, I found it a little odd, if not unsettling, to be reading a 21st century book that so openly revels in its unrepentant, nostalgic Orientalist. This seemed especially curious when I got to the author’s dedication on the final page of the book. Among the acknowledgments to individuals are two other dedications. One is to “the Circle of Melancholy Orientalists” and the other “to the Syrian people.” I don’t quite know what to make of this. But I am starting to think that Énard’s goal here is to demonstrate just how tempting and easy it is to fall back into our own comfortable misperceptions and prejudices. At any rate, Compass is a rich, rewarding novel that really grew more on me during my second reading.

 

 

 

The “Wandering Souls” of Panorama

A tiny dot had been flashing and circling slowly over a virtual point beside the road on the Google map until the satellites intercepted and correlated my precise position in the imaginary landscape; then the dot stopped moving, coming to rest on the road precisely where I was standing; that’s me, I thought, and as I slid my thumb and forefinger across the tablet to shrink the map, I saw my pulsating point, the beating of a heart, melt into an ever vaster landscape, as if my eye had separated from my body and was ascending high into the sky, swiftly, to the edge of space, from where I could see the entire planet.

It’s tempting — and partly right — to think of the Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar as a modernized W.G. Sebald, as a restless, observant wanderer equipped with a streak of melancholy and a notebook, but also with a tablet and a smart phone. Šarotar’s Panorama: A Narrative About the Course of Events is written in extended sentences that can meander for pages, weaving around the many black-and-white photographs he embeds in his text. Like Sebald, he has apocalyptic visions in which a powerful and indifferent nature can wipe out mankind in a single stroke. When Šarotar’s narrator finds himself in Brussels Central Station, he even name-drops Sebald’s “superb novel Austerlitz.” But Šarotar is also trying to turn the Sebald ship with all of its baggage in a somewhat different direction.

The book’s narrator, who is surely based on Šarotar himself, travels in Ireland, the Aran Islands, Belgium, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. At times, he is on a quest to find a place that might provide the peace he needs for writing this book, but mostly he goes for hikes in the woods, goes sightseeing in cities, and visits with people who are almost exclusively emigres from eastern Europe. Much of the time he is accompanied by an Albanian expatriate named Gjini, who often serves as his driver. Gjini, who left Albania more than ten years earlier, has no regrets or nostalgia for the old country, but he does articulate the challenges of being an emigre, which he describes as being like “a new-born child, speechless and anonymous.” The Irish, he says, “accepted me, or more precisely, they let me keep fighting, and I have to say that although it was a fair fight, it was also cruel and merciless, and it’s still going on after all these years.

Šarotar is perhaps less interested in history than Sebald and considerably more attuned to the natural world, especially weather. He is at his best as an intent, if not intense, observer, grappling with nature’s whims and attempting to describe the multitude of emotions that he feels in response. “I was full of sensations, of baffling impressions that pushed their way into my consciousness like pictures in a disorganized photo album.” Standing at the edge of a heavily wooded lake in the moments after a storm, he thinks he hears someone dive into the water. He thinks he hears breathing, the beating of a heart, the strokes of a swimmer, but he sees no one. “I felt that maybe this was a speech I didn’t know, a language transmitted by waves on water like Morse code, except that the water was communicating not just letters and words but also sighs, rhythm, silence, the beating of a heart, fear, love and death…” Over and over, Šarotar tries to capture the indescribable in words, only to come up short. But Šarotar intuits that we all would be bereft if the world suddenly lost its mysteries.

…and then a wonderful light, and I will probably never forget this moment, was suddenly in all its sharpness hovering above the black, rippling surface of the lake, as if it had burnished itself to a shine against the edges of the mountain cliffs around the valley and then, out of the pure, cold depths, had risen once more  above the immortalized scene;  I remember, as if it were now, that as I watched, but before I could take a picture, the light simply dissipated, as if it wanted to gently touch, to shine upon, something else, the way only our most fragile, most precious, but also most achingly beautiful memories are illuminated. In fact, the light that had then flashed in the sky merely caressed them with its mysterious grace — I still don’t know any other word for what remained in my memory, for the great image soon faded in the darkness, so that almost nothing of that first impression, the initial innocent glance, remained with me except this indescribable and undepictable feeling.

Panorama is organized as a set of extended memories. Early on, the narrator tells us that he is writing down his recollections and that his memory sometimes fails him. But Panorama is also organized as a set of nested voices, much like Sebald’s Austerlitz. Šarotar’s narrator is frequently telling us what other people told him. And sometimes those other people are recounting what yet others said to them. Šarotar does this all without any quotation marks, so the the numerous voices come across as a single voice, regardless of who is speaking, as if the narrator is the collective voice of the various emigres who appear in Panorama. Here’s the narrator recalling what Gjini said about what Jane said: “I’m not sure but it was as if the wind carried it in from the sea; it hovered in the silence, somewhere deep inside me, not a song, but the singing of angels; the dead were still singing, Jane said, Gjini said.”

If Panorama has a central theme it is language or, more precisely, language and place. The narrator and nearly everyone he encounters is either traveling outside his or her own country or has left it to live elsewhere. They are both tourists and emigres. “I looked through the panoramic window at the train tracks; I suspected that the man behind the bar, too, was gazing into the distance — his image, hovering next to mine in the reflection on the glass, had become still; we were like a mirage, wandering souls trapped in the thoughts of those who move eternally from place to place.” What the emigres seem to regret most is the loss of their original language, which can make them feel homeless no matter how long they have lived in their new country. Caroline, an academic, sums this up to the narrator:

I think, Caroline had said, that the idea of some inner bond between language and place is still alive for most people, it’s still a given, something eternal and immutable; I would say that it was their only tangible identity, but for many this bond has been broken, or lost, or seemingly transcended — many people, painfully and sometimes tragically, are forced, or for pragmatic reasons desire and are able, to transcend and break this bond.

And here is Renata, a translator for the European Parliament in Brussels, who is somewhat skeptical about the task she has been given, which is to make translations that transcend nationality:

What we are trying to do, Renata said, and do in a way that is both consistent and based on the principle of equality, is to translate linguistic and conceptual diversity and difference into terminologically and culturally acceptable legislation…and what’s more, it needs to be understandable to all European citizens.

In Brussels, the narrator visits Spomenka, an emigre from the Baltic countries who now is a professor of literature. “I come from a place where literature used to mean something,” she says. For Šarotar, much like for Sebald, one of the most critical ways in which literature can be meaningful is in its connectedness. The continual attentiveness of Šarotar’s narrator to the natural world, architecture, cities, people, and literature causes him to see the way in which aspects of our world are interrelated and how these interconnections help make some sort of sense of the mystery of being alive.

But while Šarotar (and his narrator) serve as the mouthpiece for the various emigres who show up in Panorama, Šarotar, who still lives in Slovenia and writes in Slovene, does not seem to share the emigres’ preoccupation with the loss of their birth languages. His ultimate goal is an attempt to capture in a grand, sweeping gesture of language the ineffable sense of being alive, of finding oneself human on a strange planet. It’s both a search for personal understanding and an attempt to test the limits of language. As the book opens, Šarotar’s narrator is on the western coast of Ireland as a powerful storm comes in from the Atlantic, shaking the small house where he is staying. He suddenly imagines:

words were rolling like multi-coloured marbles, the glass eyes scurrying away, hiding beneath the table, ducking out of sight for a moment as if waiting for inspiration, then taking off again; I felt that maybe if I could freeze them, at least for a second, could read their placement in the room, I’d be able to capture the thought, the long sentence that was both hiding and revealing itself to me in seemingly random images.

Panorama is loaded with photographs made by Šarotar (sixty-nine photographs, to be exact). They have no captions to tell us who or what we are seeing, and most of the time it doesn’t matter. Like Sebald, he photographs signs, window displays, works of art, and the objects and streetscapes of tourism, images that apparently document the people, places, and events that appear in his writing. But his best photographs are moody, dark images of nature and weather that reaffirm the existence of the indescribable.

You can read an excerpt from Panorama here and you can read Sarotar’s introduction to the Slavic translation of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn here.

Panorama (London: Peter Owen Publishers/Istros Books, 2016) is the first book by Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar to appear in English. I hope some publisher will undertake the English translations of his other novels. Rawley Grau made the translation from the original Slovenian.

“Or is there a point that I am missing?”

Imagine if The Paris Review gave you 156 pages in its Spring issue. What would you do?

What Jean-René Étienne and Lola Raban-Oliva did with 156 pages (that’s more than half the issue, by the way) was to create a photo-novella called “Formentera Storyline.” The storyline is simple. “An ad hoc group of ten longtime and tentative friends rents a house on the Spanish island of Formentera,” which is just south of Ibiza. They take Pilates classes, eat a strict diet, and basically try to “remedy the deteriorated lifestyle inherent to their high-pressure, low-stakes, medium-impact jobs in the fashion industry.” They also hope that Paul, who is staying on his yacht in the harbor, will deign to pay them a visit. When it becomes clear that Paul is not going to visit, their utopia quickly descends into dystopia. Alcohol and drugs begin to appear. On the twentieth day they run out of water. The tank on the roof is empty and no one knows what to do. Then things really go to hell. “The top symbolic resource is the lone operational MacBook charger.”

“Formentera Storyline” consists of photographs that are printed nearly full-page, beneath which is the sparse text – usually just a sentence or two per page. No people appear in the photographs, just architectural details, interiors, and images of the surrounding woods. The photographs are much more accomplished and more polished than the text. Perhaps not surprisingly, Étienne and Raban-Oliva are a Paris-based duo that work under the name Partel Oliva, creating fashion videos and music videos.  (Just Google “Partel Oliva” to see examples.)

The images and the text of “Formentera Storyline” tell different stories. Étienne and Raban-Oliva’s photographs extract lush and textured details that lure the viewer into emotional states – calmness, anxiousness, curiosity. A kind of sun-drenched Mediterranean noir, perhaps. On the other hand, the text reads like a dry film treatment. It is written in such a way that we are supposed to recognize a mildly mocking tone, but on the page this tone stays resolutely one-dimensional and insincere. I suspect that Étienne and Raban-Oliva, who seem to work primarily in video, didn’t realize how flat their text would be when not spoken aloud by actors.

After the total dissolution of civility amongst the once-happy commune, the final pages of text become the bewildered, lost voices of members of the “ad hoc group.” Here is the complete text of the last fifty-six pages of the story, which consists of twenty-eight double-page spreads of nearly black images of storm clouds at nighttime (the photographs are more interesting than this sounds):

What are we looking at?
We’re looking at Ibiza.
Ibiza isn’t that way, though, I think.
Can you hear anything?
Is it okay that we don’t hear anything?
That’s because we’re not over there, in Ibiza.
I feel hopeless in a good way.
We’re not looking at Ibiza.
We’re actually looking at Es Calo. Or maybe at Cap de Barbaria.
Cap de Barbaria is behind us.
It’s there, over there.
Remember the crazy shooting star we saw on the second day?
This is way more impressive than any shooting star.
It’s dying down a bit, though.
More like moving away, maybe?
People are dying over there in Ibiza.
Lightning without thunder feels beautiful but empty.
Or is there a point that I am missing?
What aren’t we more scared? Should we be scared?
Are we “transfixed”? Is this it?
I feel like we’ve been waiting too long.
Is something happening?
Is something happening to us right now?

I don’t fault Étienne and Raban-Oliva for doing what they do. They’re pros and they do really slick work and I don’t blame them for wanting to try something a little riskier than the work they do for clients like Kenzo. But I have to wonder what the editorial staff at The Paris Review was thinking. To be honest, they should have given a few pages to James Gallagher, the artist whose collage ran on the cover of the issue.

You can take a look at the first few pages of “Formentera Storyline” here.

Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2016

Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in 2016 containing embedded photographs.  If you know of a book that I have not mentioned, please let me know in a comment. My thanks to the many Vertigo readers who have already pointed out books that I had not known about. [Revised January 29, February 11, April 4, July 23, September 13, 2017, February 20, 2018, July 14, 2020.]

ball-how-to-set-fire

Jesse Ball. How To Set a Fire and Why. NY: Pantheon, 2016.  A rather wild high-school girl who reads authors like Antonin Artaud and Alfred Jarry decides to join an Arson Club as her way of rejecting modern life. The novel contains a single photograph – a very grainy version of a well-known image (from a stereograph) of several men standing around the open coffin of Jesse James.

bantock-pharos

Nick Bantock. The Pharos Gate: Griffin & Sabine’s Lost Correspondence. SF: Chronicle Books, 2016. Heavily illustrated. A continuation of the famous series.

boullosa-before

Carmen Boullosa. Before. Dallas: Deep Vellum, 2016. Translated into English from the 1989 Spanish title Antes by Peter Bush. Boullosa’s incandescent novel about “the non-verbal world I invented or inhabited as a child” contains a single, very blurry photograph of a landscape with a waterfall. See my review here.

addlands-2

Tom BulloughAddlands. London: Granta, 2016. A novel about Wales and the Welsh borderlands with several photographs of trees, presumably by the author.

Layout 1

Jan Brandt. Against the World. London: Seagull, 2016. Translated into English from the 2011 German title Gegen die Welt by Katy Derbyshire. Contains five photographs of advertisements and documents.  The book contains reproductions of handwritten notes in the margin and between the lines of the text and several pages are deliberately printed with a pale (sometimes scarcely legible) font. Brandt’s novel about life in a small German town across the last few decades is written in what he aptly calls “manic realism.”

chabon-moonglow

Michael Chabon. Moonglow. NY: Harper Collins, 2016. A vaguely fictionalized memoir of Chabon’s grandfather. Contains a single photograph of a 1958 advertisement for a scale model rocket for children, produced by Chabon Scientific.

Hardly War

Don Mee Choi. Hardly War. Seattle & NY: Wave Books, 2016. In this book of poems, Choi blends several languages, photographs, and drawings into a unified whole. She has a distinctive voice that is playful and confident, and Wave Books, as always, has produced a brilliant design that turns Hardly War into a bravura visual performance. Choi was born in South Korea and her father was a photographer and cinematographer who mostly worked in Asian war zones – including the Korean War and the Vietnam War and she deploys photographs by her father and others in this book. Choi borrows wordplay tactics from nursery rhymes and other forms of children’s poetry to give her writing a slightly sinister innocence, and she creates a strange and wonderful mashup of American and Korean cultures. See my review here.

Dodge_Rose

Jack Cox. Dodge Rose. Victoria: Dalkey Archive Press, 2016.  This novel contains eight b&w photographs, one of which (an image of a bathroom) is repeated six times on different pages. In addition, the photographs of a 19th century envelope on the front and rear cover are an important part of the text. Jack Cox’s debut novel is a literary tour-de-force that impressed me more than anything I have read in recent years. On the surface, it’s a comic novel about two young women trying to claim their inheritance. Cox’s great coup, in Dodge Rose, is to have written a book that is essentially about the indigenous peoples of Australia while keeping this aspect of the story utterly and almost invisibly submerged beneath the inheritance narrative. This hidden narrative of the indigenous peoples exists mostly in coded words and phrases, in the long-buried histories of names mentioned in passing or monuments casually encountered on the street. See my extended review of this novel here and here.

doucet-carpet-sweeper

Julie Doucet. Carpet Sweeper Tales. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2016. Canadian artist and cartoonist Julie Doucet formally retired from cartooning more than a decade ago, but here she returns with word/image stories using photographs from 1960s and 1970s fumetti – or photonovellas. Her humorous stories “play upon the disconnect between 1970s imagery and our modern world” (publisher’s blurb).

edwards-castles

Joshua Edwards. Castles and Islands. n. p.: Liang Editions, 2016. Poems about travel and place along with beautiful landscape photographs by Edwards.

…I have chosen an occupation
that demands I take many journeys and
know very little…

From “Lost Rivers”

field-experimental

Thalia Field. Experimental Animals (A Reality Fiction). NY: Solid Objects, 2016. Includes many photographs and other reproductions, credited to the author and other sources. “What morality says we can’t do to those like us, science authorizes us to do to the animals.” In this rich novel about the marriage of Fanny and Claude Bernard, Field explores the moral arguments that exploded around the role of vivisection in 19th century science and medicine. Physiologist Claude Bernard was an early pioneer of experimental medicine, but used live animals of all kinds to achieve his results, much to the growing horror of his wife, who had to put up with the animals he collected off the streets of Paris every night. Much of the novel consists of or is drawn from documentary sources – letters, newspaper articles, speeches, diaries, and so on, plunging the reader into the Paris of the 1840s-1870s. Among the important figures that appear in the book are Charles Darwin, Victor Hugo, Emila Zola, François Arago, Étienne-Jules Marey, the Goncourt Brothers., and the British anti-vivisectionist Anna Kingsford.

hertmans-war2

Stefan Hertsmans. War and Turpentine. London: Harvill Secker, 2016. Translated into English from the 2013 Dutch title Oorlog en terpentijn by David McKay. Illustrated with numerous black and white photographs “from the author’s personal collection” and a number of other credited photographs, most of which are reproductions of works of art. After a delay of some thirty years, a man finally decides to read the two notebooks left to him by his grandfather, an amateur painter, in which he wrote about his early life, his great love, and his horrific experiences in World War I.

hogan-woman

Mary Hogan. The Woman in the Photo. NY: William Morrow, 2016. A photograph of a 19th century relative leads a young woman to learn more about the woman’s life and her experiences during the great Johnstown Flood of 1889. Contains photographs from the Johnstown Flood Museum Archives and the National Railroad Museum.

novi_sad

Jeff Jackson. Novi Sad. n.p.: Kiddiepunk, 2016. A novella about several teenagers who find themselves in a ravaged, nearly abandoned city. With torn, scratched, burnt, and otherwise mutilated photographs by Michael Salerno, who runs Kiddiepunk press.

olio-jess

Tyehimba Jess. Olio. Seattle: Wave Books, 2016. Poetry with a historical photograph of two trains colliding and portraits of poet Paul Dunbar and minstrels Bert Williams and George Walker. Additional photographs demonstrate how to convert specific pages from Olio into folded or curled shapes, including a torus and a möbius.

Keene Grind

John Keene. Grind. n.p. ITI Press, 2016. Keene and Nicholas Muellner appropriated the text and images from queer hook-up apps, then turned the texts into poems on one page and on the opposite page displayed the photograph with the identities of the people obscured.

kitchell-wolf

M. Kitchell. Hour of the Wolf. n.p.: Inside the Castle, 2016. This edition is a “heavily revised and edited” version of a very limited 2013 edition. Narratives about nighttime, nightmares, mysterious activities during the “hour of the wolf” between 3 and 4 AM. The book’s blurb refers to the text as a “hypnagogic incantation.” With numerous uncredited photographs – some are very grainy, as if photocopied, some torn. Dedicated to the artist James Lee Byars.

paris-review-219

Alexander Kluge. “In Medieval Angelology, There Are Nine Orders of Snow: Twenty-two Stories on Some Lines from Ben Lerner’s The Lichtenberg Figures.” Paris Review 219 (Winter 2016), pp. 105-124. A short story sequence based upon lines from Lerner’s 2004 book of poetry. Includes seven uncredited photographs.

Kluge Dispatches

Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter. Dispatches from Moments of Calm. Chicago: Seagull Press, 2016.

marias thus bad

Javier Marias. Thus Bad Begins. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016. First English-language translation of the 2014 Spanish title Así empieza lo malo. This cinema-infused novel about spying, secrets, and post-Franco Spain contains a reproduction of an unidentified painting and an uncredited news photograph showing Mariella Novotny being arrested in New York City for prostitution by an FBI agent. Novotny was a jet set call girl, a friend of Christine Keeler, and reputedly slept with John F. Kennedy.

mckenzie-veblen

Elizabeth McKenzie. The Portable Veblen. NY: Penguin, 2016. A novel with fourteen b&w photographs, eight by the author and six historical photographs (mostly related to Thorstein Veblen) credited to a variety of sources. One of the main characters is a translator and an “amateur scholar” of Veblen.

nemon-etats

Onuma Nemon. États du Monde. Paris?: Mettray Éditions, 2016. A mammoth 862-page book with many photographs, credited to a wide variety of sources. The back cover indicates that this is the sixth volume in his “Cosmologie” series.

olsen-no-place

Lance Olsen and Andi Olsen [writing together as “Alana Olsen“]. There’s No Place like Time: A Retrospective. Lake Forest, IL: &NOW Books, 2016. The first clue that a mystery is afoot is the front cover of the book, which is dated “December 2018.” From the website of the book’s distributor, Northwestern University Press: “a fictional catalogue of a real retrospective of experimental films by a videographer who never existed…A collection of critical and biographical essays, stills, and reminiscences about Alana Olsen (a character who first appeared in Lance Olsen’s novel Theories of Forgetting, 2014)… Author Lance Olsen and filmmaker Andi Olsen have already begun staging Alana Olsen’s faux retrospective in galleries in Berlin and elsewhere… [curated by] her equally fictive daughter, Aila.” With numerous black and white photographs.

page-plevna

Geoff Page. Plevna: A Biography in Verse. Crawley: University of Western Australia Publishing, 2016. Using the second-person, Page tells his version of the biography of Sir Charles Snodgrass “Plevna” Ryan (1853-1926) directly to Ryan himself. Embedded within this book-long poem are seven photographs (plus an eighth on the cover) that Ryan took of life in the Australian trenches at the battle of Gallipoli (1915-16), where he was serving as a surgeon. Ryan died of a cardiac infarction on board an ocean liner as it approached Melbourne:

You tell your fellow voyagers
there’s nothing to be done
and that, in twenty minutes,
you’ll probably be dead.

Royle In Camera

Nicholas Royle & David Gledhill. In Camera. London: Negative Press, 2016. Painter David Gledhill acquired a flea market photograph album that once belonged to an East German family and he started to make large monochromatic oil paintings based on some of the photographs. Nicholas Royle created a story based on some of Gledhill’s paintings, a story of a girl who borrows her physician father’s camera and overhears his consultations with patients. Gledhill’s paintings – especially when reproduced in small format, as in this book – accurately mimic photographs. This struck me as a wonderful twist on the concept of photographs embedded within works of fiction.

panorama-sarotar

Dušan Šarotar. Panorama: A Narrative About the Course of Events. London: Peter Owen, 2016. English translation by Rawley Grau from the 2014 Slovene original of the same title. A blend of fiction, history and journalism that is a “meditation on loss and change and on time, migration, language, ocean, love and war.” With many b&w photographs. See my review here.

Wilson Extinctions

Josephine Wilson. Extinctions. Crawley: University of Western Australia Publishing, 2016. Wilson’s novel of Frederick Lothian, a retired professor of structural engineering living unhappily in a retirement home, contains numerous photographs, most of which depict modernist design and architecture. These images reflect one of the main themes of the book – modernist design and architecture. Lothian collects modernist furniture and the designs of Dieter Rams and his engineering projects focused on cleanly designed things like modern bridges. But in the eyes of his family, this passion turned him into a monster whose opinions on all matters “were set in concrete so as to render them more akin to truths.” Wilson is given one final chance to atone for his past.

“Confounded by textures”: The Pink Institution

 

saterstrom-pink-institution

After he shot himself, my grandfather’s face was a spangle bouquet that made grass die. What is difficult about looking at something like that is not that the mind resists fragmentation in general, but that it is confounded by textures which refuse the tensions one desires through edges.

I recently discovered Selah Saterstrom’s well-received first novel The Pink Institution (Coffee House Press, 2004), a tiny but powerful book of sparse poetic prose. Setting her book in the deep South, Saterstrom gives us a disorienting, visceral vision of four generations struggling with poverty, alcoholism, pills, abuse, rape, violence, and more. Instead of a linear narrative, The Pink Institution has dozens of brief, focused sections that are rarely longer than a page. Each section tells a fragment of a story or lingers over an object, a list, or a setting, forcing the reader to slow down and try to fit each loose puzzle piece into some sort of whole. In several sections, Saterstrom employs different tools to make the reader approach her prose as poetry – in effect, pacing the reader’s progress. She will wrap each word within extra spaces or insert semicolons after every second or third word. I loved reading this book, but when I was done I found myself incapable of encapsulating what I had just read. I think that’s the point. This is a book to linger over and re-read.

Here is one of the less narrative, more poem-like fragments in its entirety:

You expel a seed. Bitch hip dripping operating theater table edge. Girl Confederates, ride out to war. Oxidize Stirrup Bridge with hotlamp vaginal curdle smell. Jowl quiver overhang. Wrap it around. Glove will snatch corner air laid into iodine tile. Fleshpink powder-sucked, he shall pop the milky glove. Rifling through pockets of bloody Rebs, you are women now.

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The Pink Institution includes six small, somewhat indistinct photographs (presumably made by the author) that precede each of the book’s five major sections, with one image serving as the book’s coda. The first four photographs have the dreamy and unfocused appearance that comes from using something like a Diana camera with its cheap plastic lens. If nothing else, these first four images visually reinforce the dark tenor of Saterstrom’s book: a close-up photograph of a man’s arms holding the antlers of a dead deer, a blurry image of a young girl wearing a party hat and holding a balloon or a pumpkin, an even blurrier image of an adult and a small child walking in front of a building, and a creepy portrait of a female in a devil costume. The final two images depict the front and the back of a very young girl in a fancy white dress and a tiny matching hat clinging to the side of her hair (perhaps for Easter). This prim, formal, and shockingly crisp portrait seems utterly at odds with the rest of the book. Saterstrom is clearly trying to end The Pink Institution on a note of restored innocence, but these two images make a jarring close to a book that unflinchingly portrays how violence and familial dysfunction are handed down from generation to generation as if embedded in the DNA. To be honest, I feel that all of the photographs tend to work against the grain of Saterstrom’s fluid, emotional prose, which forces us to reside in the powerful realm of the imagination. The photographs, on the other hand, want to drag us back into the world that is precise and, therefore, limiting.

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The Scattered Shrapnel of the Unknown: Carmen Boullosa’s “Before”

Boullosa Before

But I’ll start at the beginning. Sure, I was like those children, I was one of those awkward children, and here I am cut off from their world forever. Children! I was like you once!

Carmen Boullosa’s narrator is reliving and re-exploring memories of her childhood. It’s a childhood like many – full of blissful moments, mysteries, embarrassments, misunderstandings, intense fear. This is a common – if not cliched – theme in countless novels, but the return to childhood that Carmen Boullosa has given us feels unlike any other book that I have read. I can’t say enough about Boullosa’s incandescent writing, which glows from within, radiating possibilities, contradictions, ambiguities.

In Before, it is we, the readers, who are made up, invented:

When I decided to tell you this, to invent you in order to tell this, and by having an interlocutor to have words myself, I didn’t imagine the bliss my memories would bring. Though I can exaggerate slightly my epiphany, I might say I’ve come alive again.

And what’s real are the memories:

They all rush up, want my hand, as if they were children, shouting “me first,” and I don’t know which to take first, for fear that one will rush out, decide not to come back in a fit of pique.

As memory after memory pushes itself to the surface in Before, several mysteries emerge. Why does the narrator refuse to recognize the woman she calls “Esther” as her mother – or to call her “mom”? What is the meaning of the footsteps and other frightening noises that the narrator hears with great frequency? One of the most remarkable aspects of Before is that the narrator really doesn’t want a full explanation to any of the various mysteries that haunted her childhood.

By night I couldn’t invent a code to group the terrifying sounds, but I was collecting them, creating a dictionary without definitions, an auditory lexicon. There surely must be an appropriate term to call what I created out of the noises pursuing me in the night. But I didn’t explain them: I never said, “That’s the wardrobe door creaking,” among other things, because I was also afraid of the right door to the wardrobe just because I was – because it was there, because it was by my right leg and I felt was about to explode, scattering shrapnel of the unknown…I didn’t put defining labels on the noises I could list because definitions wouldn’t have helped at all, wouldn’t have soothed or calmed me, would have only brought ingredients to swell the vein of fear. I would have been much more alarmed to know from where they came and how they developed!

Boullosa is reminding us that the richness and fullness of life is complex beyond belief. With every paragraph new options open up and existence becomes a path that turns into infinite possibilities. “If I were to try to endow my story with any kind of logic,” she writes, but logic doesn’t apply here.

[Spoiler alert.] In the very last sentence of the book the narrator apparently tells us that she died as a child and that her death occurred simultaneously with the appearance of her first menstrual period. The moment of her death occurs during a night of extreme panic, when she is being harassed by invisible pursuers  (“I could hear them breathing next to me.”), when she finds a beating heart in her garden, when her legs become drenched in blood. Did she really die or was this the death of her childhood innocence? Is she a ghost, talking to her imaginary audience from the grave? Perhaps. Either way, this death closes the circle. Throughout Before we learn absolutely nothing about the after – if there was one.

Before contains a single embedded photograph. It depicts Montmorency Falls, just outside Quebec City. (In the book, it is spelled as Montmerency.) The narrator has gone there on a summer exchange program and one day she is having lunch at the house of friends of her mother when “the steps and the noises I know so well” appear, scaring her so that she cannot finish her meal.

The whole wide world seemed to collapse like the extraordinary waterfall we passed in order to reach their house, the Montmerency Falls, that I remember from the mute, single piece of evidence I preserved by mistake from the world I inhabited as a child.

Right here:

Before

Curiously, the narrator goes on to say that that she “held [this photograph] the night they came for me and didn’t let it go.” Even though there is no reference to this on the final pages when “they” come for her, it is obvious that this photograph, which she ripped from her holiday scrapbook, held great importance for her.

Here it is. It’s the only thing I knew I had: nothing at all, a spurt of water in the darkness that by trying to remember so hard I’ve erased completely, I don’t know what colors were there, it’s black and white like the photograph you can see. I don’t know what it smelled of, what the temperature was, if there was noise or silence. Nothing at all. Water, sky, trees, electricity or telephone cables – perhaps carrying voices that I sense and try to recreate – murky constructions, all wrapped in the same senselessness: What was the water like? Was it a violent, extraordinary descent, pure death, or was it like lake water, quiet, peaceful, serene, like a tender mother, but gentler, more welcoming, no doubt more faithful, more protective?

And what were the trees like? Gently surrounded by leaves, cruelly protruding, sharp-pointed, rough bare branches, or dead on their feet?

The sounds, the smells, the colors, the emotions that she cannot remember about Montmerency Falls, are all things that she recalls in great detail with every other memory in the book. What does this mean? I would argue that it does not mean anything as trite as stating that photographs replace and destroy the associated memory. I believe we must go back to the image of the world seeming “to collapse” as the waterfall crashes down. Just how does a waterfall collapse? I imagine tons of water falling over the edge of the waterfall every second and literally disappearing into the relatively calm body of water below, which makes it seem that the waterfall is, indeed, collapsing into nothingness. Just as life collapses into death.

Carmen Boullosa’s Before is a book that becomes richer, more nuanced, and more rewarding with each re-reading. It been translated from the 1989 Spanish original by Peter Bush and comes with an excellent introduction by Phillip Lopate. It was published this month by the non-profit Deep Vellum Publishing, one of the best publishers of translated literature.

“Midpoint”: John Updike’s Pointillist Poem

Updike Midpoint_0001-001

Engraver and Apprentice, in their room
Of acid baths and photophobic gloom,
Transform to metal dots ten shades of gray…

I have never been a fan of John Updike’s writing, but I have to admit I was really curious when a Vertigo reader mentioned that Updike had published a book of poetry in 1969 that contained numerous photographs. “Midpoint,” the long poem that opens Midpoint and Other Poems (NY: Knopf, 1969), was written “to take inventory of his life at the end of his thirty-fifth year – a midpoint,” as the book’s dust jacket puts it. As it turned out, “Midpoint” was written a few years prematurely, since Updike (1932-2009) lived to be nearly seventy-seven.

“Midpoint” has five sections or cantos.  X.J. Kennedy referred to the poem as “a personal history in heterogeneous parts —terza rima; a family photo album; a celebration in Spenserian stanzas of metals, ceramics, and polymers; Poundian cantos, complete with glosses; and a meditation in heroic couplets…” (April 1993, New Criterion). Each canto begins with an “argument” that sets forth the poet’s own summary of that section. In Canto 1, the “Introduction,” Updike writes of “early intimations of wonder and dread” and opens with the telling line “Of nothing but me, me.” Then comes Canto II, “The Photographs,” which consists only of a brief argument and twenty-one photographs of Updike and his family – grandparents, parents, siblings, himself at multiple ages, his wife (the book came out five years before his divorce from Mary), and his children.

Updike Midpoint_0002-001

Argument: The pictures speak for themselves. A cycle of growth, mating, and birth. The coarse dots, calligraphic and abstract, become faces, with troubled expressions. Distance improves vision. Lost time sifts through these immutable screens.

Updike doesn’t seem to have made any attempt to make the photographs approximate any poetic form. There is no apparent rhythmic pattern to the way the photographs are placed on their five pages and the only organizing principle is chronology. The photographs themselves, which are reproduced as halftones, are purposefully printed in such a way as to show the dots formed by the halftone screens. (Although, curiously, the halftone dots are strikingly less noticeable on three of the photographs – each of which is a head shot of Updike himself.) At first I wondered if his decision to emphasize the halftone dots might be related to the Pop Art of the time, specifically Roy Lichtenstein. While it is certainly possible that Lichtenstein’s work created an awareness on Updike’s part of the underlying dots in halftone reproductions, Updike’s writing is not at all aligned with the goals of Pop Art. Rather, we should take Updike’s word for it that he sees the halftone patterns as a visual symbol of lost time and as a metaphor for distance. A halftone image – like life itself – is easier to see from afar.

Lichtenstein Jeff DetailRoy Lichtenstein, detail of Oh, Jeff… I Love You, Too…But…, 1964

In Canto III, “the Dance of the Solids,” Updike echoes the theme that images are comprised of small, nearly invisible units by turning to science to remind us that the entire universe is made up of atoms. “Solidity is an imperfect state” and light “is not so pure.”

How nicely microscopic forces yield,
In units growing visible, the World we wield!

Updike Midpoint_0003-001

The argument in Canto IV, “The Play of Memory,” announces that: “The poet remembers and addresses those he has loved. Certain equations emerge from the welter, in which Walt Whitman swims. Arrows urge us on. Imagery from Canto II returns, enlarged. Sonnet to father. Conception as climax of pointillism theme. ” Here, eleven cropped versions of photographs that first appeared in Canto II are woven into the poem (although there is one image that seems to be new). The poem also employs typographic devices (bold fonts, arrows, etc.) and simple line drawings. Quotations from Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and photographs are placed throughout Updike’s sex-obsessed canto of  youthful memories (“always sex”). There is a sense of randomness to the many memories that Updike conjures; like pool balls moving around a pool table endlessly clacking into other balls, one memory evokes a new memory, which evokes yet another memory, and so on. The canto ends with an image of the next generation, a photograph of one of Updike’s children rendered nearly indistinct due to the hyper-enlarged halftone dots. Updike’s use of the art historical term “pointillism” is another hint that he is not referencing Pop Art through his dot-constructed images. Instead, he sees the halftone screen more as a corollary to the work of post-Impressionist painters like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who were using the scientific theories of visual perception of Hermann von Helmholtz and others as they constructed their paintings from small dabs of paint.

Updike Midpoint_0004-001

Canto V: Conclusion. “Argument: The poet strives to conclude, but his aesthetic of dots prevents him. His heroes are catalogued. World politics: a long view. Intelligent hedonistic advice. Chilmark Pond in August. He appears to accept, reluctantly, his own advice.”

Reality transcends itself within;
Atomically, all writers must begin.
The Truth arrives as if by telegraph:
One dot; two dots; a silence; then a laugh.

 

Photo-Embedded Literature – 1970-1989: Bibliography

Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in the years 1970-1989 containing embedded photographs.  You can see individual bibliographies for other years underneath the pull-down menu “Photo-Embedded Literature” at the top of Vertigo.  I also maintain a comprehensive bibliography that spans 1892 to the present at Library Thing (http://www.librarything.com/catalog/VertigoTwo). As of today, July 5, 2016, that bibliography contains 228 fiction titles and 68 poetry titles. I am always updating these lists as I learn of new books.  If you know of a book not included on my list, please let me know in a comment. [Updated July 15, 25, October 12, November 29, 2016, February 8, 2017, February 10, August 7, 2018, June 9, June 16, 2020.]

abebox

Kobo Abe.  The Box Man.  NY: Knopf, 1974. Contains nine b&w photographs, almost assuredly by Abe himself. This is the first English translation from the Japanese original Hako Otoko, published in 1973. For my review of this book, click here.

Bayer vitus bering rigmarole

Konrad Bayer.  The Head of Vitus Bering: A Portrait in ProseMelbourne: Rigmarole of the Hours, 1979. Bayer’s novel is often called the most important work issued by the Vienna Group. It’s an hallucinogenic transformation of the ill-fated exploration that led to the death of Bering and his crew on the Aleutian island named after him. It contains a single b&w photograph on the opening page. This is the first English translation from the original German edition of 1965. A “revised” translation was published by Atlas Press in 1994. Click here to see the connection between Bayer and W.G. Sebald.

Breton Mad Love

Andre Breton. Mad Love.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987. Surprisingly, it took fifty years for this first English translation from the French original of 1937 L’Amour Fou., Breton’s Surrealist classic about the mysteries of love. Mad Love contains twenty black-and-white photographs, some of which are credited to Man Ray, Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others. About half of the photographs reproduce Surrealist works of art.

Beard's-Roman-Woman

Anthony Burgess. Beard’s Roman Women. NY: McGraw Hill, 1976. Ronald Beard is a writer living in Rome, haunted by the death of his first wife – but not enough to prevent him from hanging out with Paola, a photographer. The novel, based on Burgess’s second wife, Liana, includes seventeen photographs meant to be by Paola, but actually by British photographer David Robinson.

Dictee Front Cover

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Dictee. NY: Tanam Press, 1982.  Now recognized as one of the key works in twentieth century avant-garde literature, Dictee is an experiment in autobiography that blends poetry and prose, history and memoir. It also contains numerous uncredited news photographs, portraits and reproductions of documents, including some depicting the author’s own manuscript for Dictee, thus anticipating Sebald’s use of embedded imagery by years. For my review of this book, click here.

Cortazar Eighty

Julio Cortázar. Around the Day in Eighty Worlds. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986. First English-language translation. Invoking Phineas Fogg, Man Ray, and Duchamp in the opening pages, Cortázar provides a rational for this collage of stories, poems, bits of memoir, and scores of images that include drawings, photographs, and reproductions of artworks. In the manner of his earlier book Hopscotch, there is no specific or correct order for reading seventy-five pieces included in this volume.

Peter De Lory

Peter De Lory. The Wild and the Innocent. Riverside: California Museum of Photography, 1987. A very brief story accompanied by photographs by de Lory, along with a song by artist Terry Allen. This is a fairly rare example of a photographer who ventures into the world of fiction.

Duncan Caesar

Robert Duncan. Caesar’s Gate: Poems 1949-50. With paste-ups by Jess. n.p.: Sand Dollar, 1972. Life partners Robert Duncan and Jess collaborated on a number of books that consisted of Duncan’s poems and writings and Jess’s paste-ups (photo collages). This is a beautiful example that demonstrates the way in which their collaborations work in parallel, while remaining thematically distinct.

Finney time and again

Jack Finney. Time and Again. NY: Scribner’s, 1970. A novel about time travel, illustrated with photographs.

Gardner Ghost

John Gardner. Mickelsson’s Ghost. NY: Knopf, 1982. With a number of photographs by the author’s son Joel Gardner. A labyrinthine tale of a professor of philosophy who retires to a rural Pennsylvania farm in an attempt to remake his life.

Guibert Suzanne

Hervé Guibert. Suzanne et Louise. Paris: Editions Libres Hallier, 1980. A photo-roman, or photonovel with forty-four photographs by Guibert. Reissued in 2019 by Gallimard in an expanded edition.

cherished-objects-001

Paul Hewson and Linda Marie Walker. Cherished Objects: An Illustrated Novel. Adelaide: Experimental Art Foundation, 1989. A collaborative work by two artists. The text is about a cartographer who creates maps of imaginary places and an aging detective who files fanciful reports to his employer. There are black and white deadpan photographs on nearly every page, some of which illustrate aspects of the text, while others seem to have little relationship to the absurd and amusing story.

howard-lining-up

Richard Howard. Lining Up: Poems. NY: Atheneum, 1984. Contains the nine-part poem “Homage to Nadar,” which is comprised of sections on nine key 19th century artists who were photographed by Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon): Eugène Delacroix, Jean-François Millet, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Giuseppi Verdi, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Hector Berlioz, Jules Michelet, Gérard de Nerval, and Anatole France. Each section is accompanied by Nadar’s portrait of the subject. In addition, the poem “Impersonations” contains a reproduction of a painting by Henri Rousseau and a photograph by E. Montastier of the French novelist Pierre Loti impersonating the Egyptian god Osirus.

Kluge Neue Geschichten

Alexander Kluge. Neue Geschichten. Hefte 1-18. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1977. Stories by Kluge with numerous photographs. Kluge’s writing and use of embedded images greatly influenced Sebald. One section of Neue Geschichten (unillustrated) was translated into English in an anthology of Kluge’s writings published under the title Air Raid (Seagull Books 2014). Air Raid concludes with Sebald’s essay on Kluge called “Between History and Natural History. On the Literary Description of Total Destruction. Remarks on Kluge.”

Lucas What a life

E.V. Lucas & George Morrow. What a Life!: An Autobiography. NY: Dover, 1975. Reprint of the 1911 original. Fictional autobiography illustrated entirely with images cut out of a Whiteley’s (London department store) Catalogue. This reprint contains an introduction by poet John Ashberry.

Lucas what a life

E.V. L[ucas]., & G[eorge]. M[orrow]. What a Life!: An Autobiography. London: Collins, 1987. Yet another reprint of the 1911 originalThis fictional autobiography is illustrated solely with images cut out of a Whiteley’s department store catalog. An earlier reprint was put out in 1975 by Dover (see above). Nearly all of the illustrations seem to be engravings, but several look suspiciously like photographs. Nevertheless, this represents a very early example of a work of fiction in which the text and illustrations carry equal weight.

Memmi Scorpion

Albert Memmi. The Scorpion; or The Imaginary Confession. NY: Orion Press, 1971. Translated from the 1969 French original by Eleanor Levieux. Memmi’s novel about a man rummaging through the papers of his brother who has disappeared contains seven photographs and several reproductions of works of art and texts.

Metcalf I57

Paul Metcalf. I-57. New Haven: Longriver Books, 1988. “Not a poem, not a novel, not a history, not a journal, and yet at times some or all of these. An ideosyncratic approach to a place, a region, and to the interior and exterior life of an American.” With thirty-eight photographs attributed to the author and Leni Furhman.

Wright plains song

Wright Morris. Plains Song: For Female Voices. 1980. A remarkable novel about three generations of Midwestern women. Each chapter begins with the same photograph – an oval image (as if seen through an oval mirror) of the corner of a room in which stands a table full of framed family portraits.

Ondaatje Billy

Michael Ondaatje. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1970. Poems about Billy the Kid, with seven black and white photographs, some of which are credited to Montana photographer L.A. Huffman (1854-1931) and several reproductions from old books.

ComingThroughSlaughter

Michael Ondaatje. Coming Through Slaughter. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1976. Ondaatje’s first novel is the story of legendary New Orleans jazz cornet player Buddy Bolden (1876?-1931). Contains two photographs: one of Bolden’s band and one showing a series of three sonographs of dolphin sounds that relate to the manner in which Bolden played the cornet. See my review of this title here.

Roubaud Incendie

Jacques Roubaud. Grand Incendie de Londres. Paris: Seuil, 1989. Contains a single photography by the author’s wife Alix. For my review of the 1991 English translation, click here.

Sukenick Blown Away

Ronald Sukenick. Blown Away. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986. Sukenick’s often amusing tale of Hollywood, starring a mind reader named Boris O. Ccrab. Contains one illustration: a photocopy of a page from the October 24, 1978 LA Times, showing photographs of a forest fire around Malibu.

Van der Zee

James Van Der Zee, Owen Dodson, and Camille Billops. The Harlem Book of the Dead. Dobbs Ferry: Morgan & Morgan, 1978. Photographs by Van Der Zee, poems by Dodson, and texts by Billops. This collaborative work uses Van Der Zee’s photographs of Harlem funerals to explore the African American culture of Harlem. Foreword by Toni Morrison.

white-removal-001

Ivan White. Removal of an Exhibition. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, 1976. Poetry and some prose by White, with 36 b&w photographs (mostly snapshots and portraits) credited to Robert Golden. This was announced to be the first in a series of books called “Poetry in Progress,” volumes of poetry which were meant to include photographs, but it appears that no other title in the series was issued. ” Whenever possible, individual books shall employ photographic images. These are not merely decoration. Pictures – and especially photographic ones – are representations of facts out of a world we know but do not always acknowledge. Pictures are reminders of the ‘lost and found’ aspect of experience.” Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative was the original publisher of Susan Sontag’s first novel The Benefactor (1983).

Hardly War

Hardly WarI was narrowly narrator,

yet superbly so.

In an essay several years ago for the British magazine Source Photographic Review, I wrote: “if one were to look for the most innovative and challenging uses of photography in literature today, I would point to a handful of contemporary poets who are finding ways to turn visual images into poetic vocabulary, notably Anne Carson, Christian Hawkey, Susan Howe, and Leslie Scalapino.” Today, I would add a number of names to that list, one of which is Don Mee Choi, whose new book of poems and photographs Hardly War (Seattle & NY: Wave Books, 2016) I have been reading and rereading for a week now. Choi pulls off quite a feat by blending several languages, photographs, and drawings into a unified whole. She has a distinctive voice that is playful and confident, and Wave Books, as always, has produced a brilliant design that turns Hardly War into a bravura visual performance on paper. Choi was born in South Korea and her father was a photographer and cinematographer who mostly worked in Asian war zones – including the Korean War and the Vietnam War and she deploys photographs by her father and others in this book.

What I am attempting to do with my poems and my father’s photographs is what I used to do as a child when I stared at my father’s photographs and maps. I’m trying to imagine race=nation,its language, its wars. I am trying to fold race into geopolitics. It involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power. It strings together the faintly remembered, the faintly imagined, the faintly discarded, which is to say race=nation gets to speak its own faint history in its own faint language. Its mere umbilical cord is hardly attached to anything at all. Hence, hardly=war.

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This the opening page of the poetry, which immediately follows a brief, mostly autobiographical introduction by Choi called “Race=Nation.” Beginning the book with a glossary feels like a sly joke on books with highly technical terms or many foreign words. The paired photographs show the Taedong River Bridge in Pyongyang, Korea in November 1950 (left) and December 1950 (right), before and after its destruction.  Choi’s father, with a camera around his neck, is on the left. On this page, Choi carefully and succinctly sets up the key devices that will appear throughout the book: pluralingualism, uncertain equivalencies, and repetition (of images, symbols, and words).

Hardly War is pluralingual, employing English (as the primary language) and Korean, as well as the languages of mathematics and music, photography and drawing. Presumably, the visual images are also the most universal of the languages, since many readers will not know both English and Korean and certainly some readers will not be able to read music. So most readers will find that Choi uses language as both a means and a barrier to communication.

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Here, Choi builds a kind of unstable linguistic pedestal for the image of the two people and the tank. In her Notes, Choi explains that this photograph is from the U.S. National Archives and shows a young girl carrying her brother in front of an M-26 tank. Choi frequently uses the equal sign, but always in a way that simultaneously suggests and undermines a sense of equivalency between the two sides of the equation. The number 5 occurs several times in the book, often referring to the five petals of the Rose of Sharon, which is the national flower of South Korea.

Readers who are bilingual in Korean and English will undoubtedly read Hardly War very differently than readers like me who know only one of the languages. Choi openly acknowledges that monolingual English readers will be missing something (“I refuse to translate”), but I think that incomprehension – the first step toward the creation and demonization of the Other – is an intentional part of Choi’s writing in Hardly War. In her Introduction, Choi writes: “This is how gook=nation was born. Our race, our national identity, even our clothing became racialized and geopoliticized within the global class war. Therefore, when I was born in the tiny, tile-roofed house, I was already geopolitically raced. Hence, me=gook.”

Gossamer=Blouse and Yankee=Blouse

Warmly greeted one another

I see Ugly=Translators

Yes, Ma’am

Me=Gook

(from the poem “Hydrangea Agenda”)

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This page appears three pages after the one I showed previously. The image of a young woman carrying her brother on her back (this time a photograph taken by Choi’s father) serves as a rhyming image for the previous photograph.

The register of Choi’s English voice shifts dramatically throughout the book. There are sections written in the simple, awkward voice of a small child or of a foreigner who speaks a kind of pidgin English. This voice sometimes seems to be playing with the stereotype of the submissive foreigner. Other sections are written in the pseudo-factual voice of a journalist or newsreel narrator, while others – which deal with military topics like the bombs and herbicides (napalm, DDT) dropped over Korea from the air – are written in an almost neutral, scientific voice.

But the most consistent aspect of Hardly War is Choi’s peculiar sense of humor. She borrows wordplay tactics from nursery rhymes and other forms of children’s poetry to give her writing a slightly sinister innocence. (“I was cheerily cherrily red and merely merrily washed my face in the yard and looked up at the stars. I decided to go alone as far as I could go south, do and do and to.”) And she creates a strange mashup of American and Korean cultures, as in the short poem “A Little Menu,” which is simply a list of food items that includes “Wieners,” “Pan-fried Spam with kimchi,” and:

Fudge

or

Radish soup

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The page with the seven photo-segments is opposite “Suicide Parade,” a poem about the use of napalm. This hauntingly rhythmic parade of images serves as a visual refrain, recapitulating images that have all appeared in the previous pages. The images (and the people they depict) are fragmented and partially reassembled. but, significantly, fail to make a whole new person. This image made me thing of the futility of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again after he falls off the all.

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Much of Hardly War shifts between traditionally formatted poems and prose poems, but the book ends with a section some forty pages long called “Hardly Opera,” which is written in the form of a libretto for many characters (many of which are flowers), complete with stage directions. The main character in the opera is her father’s Leica Elmar camera. In the three pages of carefully and lyrically placed photographs and drawings that precede this section (two are shown above), Choi gives us a visual poem which contrasts the articles of military-like clothing that her father wore as a combat photographer and the delicate drawings of flower-decorated clothing that Choi made as a child while he was away on assignment. Choi writes:

The photos and drawings are meant to be a key to “Hardly Opera,” or that is how it functioned for me as I was writing it. While my father was in Vietnam, I was busy drawing and scribbling, making outfits for my paper dolls and pretending to write in English.

Check out the excellent review of Hardly War by Rich Smith over at Seattle’s alternative arts & culture newspaper The Stranger.