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Posts from the ‘Poetry with Embedded Photos’ Category

Don Mee Choi’s “Geopolitical Poetics”

I am a foreigner who writes in English
Because English is a foreigner like me
I write prescriptions for the injured and the sick
Scribble republic!

from “A Little Confession”

For several decades, poetry has become increasingly visual. It has been about words on a page, letters in space, words & images in relation to each other. Just pick up Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books) and let the pages flip through your fingers. Yes, a few of the pages look like poems “ought” to look like. But most of the pages don’t. There are photographs, tiny ones and full page ones. Drawings. A good deal of the book is written in solid blocks of text that look like prose and a long section that is laid out in the form of an opera libretto. And then there are the lines written in Korean characters, or the excerpts from musical scores (music is essentially a foreign language for me and, undoubtedly, for many readers). Finally, like more and more poetry and fiction titles do these days, the book ends with several pages of explanatory notes, which mostly provide the sources for the many quotations and references the poet has used throughout Hardly War.

The other thing that flipping through Hardly War with your fingers will suggest—and that reading will confirm—is that Choi has carefully thought out this as a book. This is not a collection of assorted random poems on various topics. It’s clear from a quick glimpse at the book that Choi has given herself an awful lot to juggle, so she uses her own biography as the spine on which to hang everything, along with a bare bones history of Korea during roughly the same years—1950 to 1968. Choi was born and raised in Korea, before eventually settling in the U.S. Her father was a photojournalist who covered the war zones across Southeast Asia and in Korea. She uses some of his photographs in the book, and she turns his camera into one of the characters in the opera libretto, “Hardly Opera,” which closes out the book.

Hardly War is a carefully orchestrated sequence of poems, prose poems, and images. It opens with a prose poem “Race=Nation,” which introduces the reader to the poet and her father, along with a few sentences about her idea of folding geopolitics into poetry. It basically serves as her elevator speech on twentieth century Korean history: occupied by Japan from 1910-1945; under the control of the U.S. military government through 1948; authoritarian president who had to be overthrown by a student-led revolution in 1960. South Korea still has not shaken this history off its back even now and we all know what North Korea is like.

“Race=Nation” is followed by “A Little Glossary,” which includes images that aren’t explained, languages that aren’t translated, and the word “gook” which isn’t defined. When we get to the end of the book, the Notes will tell us that these 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. The mention of “5 petals” refers to the Rose of Sharon, the national flower of South Korea. On this page, Choi carefully and succinctly sets up the key devices that will she will use throughout the book: pluralingualism, uncertain equivalencies, non-translation, and repetition (of images, symbols, and words).

The first real “poem” of the book is “A Little Menu,” a very simple listing of the foods that an American G.I. might have had while stationed in Korea (e.g. wieners, canned fruit, crackers, soluble coffee, etc.), ending with the line “What did General Fatty eat?”. “General Fatty” is what Choi calls General Douglas MacArthur, who initially led the United Nations military command in Korea. Choi’s confidence in using humor—even silliness—is one of the reasons I have thought about Hardly War time and time again since I first read it nearly six years ago. After seeing black-and-white photographs of soldiers, war-damaged bridges, military equipment, and malnourished or orphaned children, we don’t expect poems that read like nursery rhymes or children’s taunts. This is her “hardly war,” her “faint history<‘ made up of the voices traditionally drowned out by the din of battle. In daring to contrast her “paper closet with real paper dresses in it” against “THE BIG PICTURE. War and its masses. War and its men. War and its machines.’, as she writes in “Woe Are You?” Choi knows that paper dolls and poetry won’t win wars, but that they can help change the way that history is told.

And changing history is her agenda. She wants to correct the stereotyped image of Korea which has been handed down across several generations now, defined almost exclusively by the American experience of the Korean War, even though the war ended nearly seventy years ago. She references two of the Hollywood moviesPork Chop Hill (1959) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962)that helped to perpetuate the colonialist trope of of the Korean conflict as the opposition between heroic G.I.s and the native Koreans, who were seen as inept, untrustworthy, and very likely Communists, and who were frequently referred to as gooks, the derogatory word that Americans often used for Asians and other “lower” races. Choi wants to tell Korea’s “own faint history in its own faint language.”

Geopoetics. . . 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.

Readers who are bilingual in Korean and English will undoubtedly read Hardly War differently than readers like me who know only one of the languages. But I think that Choi uses incomprehensionwhich is the first step toward demonization of the Otherintentionally throughout Hardly War.

The book’s narration constantly shifts between sections written in the voices of children, parts written in the pidgin English of Koreans, sections mimicking the pseudo-neutral voice of a slightly gung-ho journalist or newsreel narrator, and a loony version of an opera libretto in which most of the characters are flowers. But what is consistent about all of the voices in 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.” At the beginning of the photo/poem “With My Brother on My Back / I Was Narrowly Narrator” (shown below), Choi writes: “I was narrowly narrator / yet superbly so.” The turnabout from modesty to confidence in a seven word sentence is something I find astonishing.

I wrote about Hardly War when it came out in 2016 and I have incorporated a few bits and pieces from that review in this updated and enlarged piece. Choi’s next book, DMZ Colony, also from Wave Books, won the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. Wave Books deserves huge kudos for the vision, support, and dedication they show to all of their authors.

Ω

Don Mee Choi. Hardly War. Seattle: Wave Books, 2016.

This is book number 4 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo, and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

“Explosion of Words” Exhibition in London

Hannes Schüpbach, “Explosion of Words,” detail of image 11 with words from Stephen Watts’ poem ‘For My Friend,
Max Sebald’ (Ancient Sunlight, London: Enitharmon, 2014/2021) © Hannes Schüpbach

Since one of the cornerstones of Vertigo is exploring poetry that includes photographs, a friend brought to my attention the current exhibition in London at Bow Arts’ Nunnery Gallery, “Explosion of Words,” a cinematic photo installation and imaginary library of modern poetry in translation. Here’s what the organizer’s webpage says about it:

Explosion of Words” is a cinematic photo installation, extending frieze-like over 30 metres of the Nunnery Gallery’s gothic walls, celebrating the power of language. The exhibition is the culmination of Swiss artist Hannes Schüpbach’s (b. 1965) response to the lived spaces of east London-based poet and language activist Stephen Watts (b. 1952), who works between extensive research on poetry and his own contributions as a poet and co-translator from many languages.  
Approximately 1600 pages of Watts’ ongoing Bibliography of Modern Poetry in English Translation will be mounted directly onto the gallery’s four-metre-high walls as a background for Schüpbach’s space-spanning photo installation, creating a cosmos of world poetry. Watts’ Bibliography, which is 40 years in the making, will be transformed into a physical experience, creating a ‘storehouse of language’, reflecting Watts’ own passion for poetry in every tongue. In the nave space of the gallery, an excerpt of Schüpbach’s new silent film Essais (2020), with Stephen Watts, will also be on display. 
Watts’ Bibliography opens up perspectives onto the rich wealth of poetry that has been, and still is being, written or performed out of many different histories and environments, as well as exploring the many cultural issues involved in translation.
A two-part artists’ publication has been published to coincide with the exhibition: Hannes Schüpbach: Explosion of Words. Dedicated to Stephen Watts, with an essay by Jo Catling and Stephen Watts: Explosion of Words, 19 Poems, with German translations by Hannes Schüpbach (192 pages, 19.5 × 26 cm, designed by Raphael Drechsel, GREAT, published by Verlag für moderne Kunst, Vienna), available to buy at the gallery.

PLEASE NOTE! Panel talk April 7.

Explosion of Words | ‘An Imaginary Library’: Modern Poetry and Translation Thursday 7 April, 6.30-7.45pm, Queen Mary University of London, £5/free for concessions Join a panel of speakers including Stephen Watts, Hannes Schüpbach, Jo Catling, Chris McCabe and Nisha Ramayya as they dig into the significance of Watts’ Bibliography and its crucial place in a full consideration of modern poetry and translation. (Booking is recommended as gallery space is limited. Book all events online at: bowarts.org/whats-on)

For more information on the exhibition, publication, and programming, check out the bowarts website.

The book Hannes Schüpbach: Explosion of Words contains poems by Watts and photographs by Schüpbach.

Double-page spread from Hannes Schüpbach: Explosion of Words. Photographs © Hannes Schüpbach.

“Don’t Rush”: Andrew Zawacki’s “Unsun:”

Zawicki Unsun

Poetry geeks tend to write things about Andrew Zawacki’s poetry like: “Unsun takes on digital networks, international transit, the uneven movements of capital, and the unrelenting feedback loops of data surveillance, weather disaster, war” (from the Coach House Books blurb). In somewhat simpler terms, it’s fair to say that Zawacki is ever alert to all that is going on around him. Most of the poems in Unsun deal with nature, with walks outdoors, through forests, into a “fox field at evenfall.” He is especially attuned to the many ways in which industry and technology are attacking and, often, ruining our environment. “The sky is not falling it’s / failing” (From “Outside a Ruined Casino.”)

Many of the poems in his recent book  Unsun:f/11 (Coach House Books, 2019) draw on the terminology of scientific disciplines, including geology, mathematics, meteorology, and astronomy, plus the fields of medicine, computer programming, photography, and probably several others that I have forgotten, not to mention a couple of foreign languages. In other words, I spent a lot of time Googling things as I read his vocabulary-expanding poems.

We are all on our way
Out don’t
Rush

(from: “U9 to Zoo Station Sonnet”)

My take on these challenging poems is simple: don’t rush. One of Zawacki’s goals is to encourage (i.e., force) the reader to look at things differently. More precisely. More scientifically. This is implied in the book’s subtitle f/11, which represents the f stop, or aperture, of a camera lens. In this case, f/11 suggests a lens in which nearly everything should be in sharp focus.

A glassstar shrieks into
                                   starfall, its falllight
casting enriched uranium
shadows over the ruins

                                  of a city of
lead and cement : an early-
                                 warning satellite chitters, the end
times barely begun, no witness

protection program for any of us.

(from “END_PROGRAM_HELLOWORLD”)

I’d like to steal a short phrase from John Vincler’s recent essay “Grid Logic” (over at the Poetry Foundation), which is about the poetry of Susan Howe. He writes about Howe’s “atomistic attention to units of sound and typographical form.” Zawacki, I think, pays an atomistic attention to every detail—to every sound, movement, cloud formation, color—and he wants the most precise word or phrase for that detail, regardless of what discipline the word might come from. If one word comes from chemistry and the next from metallurgy, no problem. Few readers are likely to fully grasp some of Zawacki’s poems during the first read-through. Nevertheless, by the end of a poem like “END_PROGRAM_HELLOWORLD”, few readers will have trouble recognizing that Zawacki is describing the ecological catastrophe that unchecked technology has wrought on our planet.

Take four minutes and go over to Soundcloud and listen to Zawacki talk about and then read “Gratophoph,” a delightful poem from Unsun written for his young daughter, and I think you’ll see that clarity isn’t everything.

One section of Zawacki’s book is a series of poems and photographs called “Waterfall Plot,” which he says is “lifted from the ‘Wheel-Rim River’ suite by eighth -century Chinese poet, painter, musician, and politician Wang Wei.” Each of the twenty brief poems in this suite is accompanied by beautiful abstract, black-and-white photographs by Zawacki. The photographs were shot at “a compound of disused chicken coops in Athens, Georgia.” In his photographs, Zawacki makes the recognizable (chicken wire, windows, feathers, dirt) look otherworldly. He turns them into eerie, if not ominous landscapes and skyscapes that serve as the inspiration for each of the poems, just as Wang Wei’s poems were inspired by the Chinese landscapes he knew so intimately. (David Hinton’s translation of Wang Wei’s WheelRim Sequence can be read here.)

Here is the photograph and the poem that comprise “Waterfall Plot 2”:

WP4 001

Leaves in the wind a kaleidoscope—developer
amber, hypo pink—and chickens blind, asphyxiated

by contaminated streams. Root canal : ammonium
nitrate and diesel fuel, to fracas a mountain in half.

Photography is typically about framing the world. But in these photographs, Zawacki is mostly concerned with focus and scale. He wants to turn the micro—the grime or residue that has naturally built up over time on a scrap of screen or on a pane of glass—into something that resembles a landscape or skyscape. He uses the science of photography to aid the eye in seeing in more precisely and then he employs the vocabulary of the sciences to articulate more precisely. We often think of poetry as invoking mystery or pointing us to that which cannot be spoken. Zawacki is going in the opposite direction, towards a kind of rigor or exactitude. There are still mysteries in this world, but they are all the more stunning if seen clearly.

Coach House Books has produced an exceptional short video about Unsun that I highly recommend watching. No, it’s not a poetry reading. Think of it as a sort of sci-fi music video for the book’s opening poem “Optic Audio.” The video was edited by Paul Cunningham and the music excerpted from “Ice as the Sun” by the Berlin-based electronic music composer Hainbach.

The poems of “Waterfall Plot” are also available in a chapbook. Waterfall Plot. Greying Ghost, 2019. Chapbook. Limited edition of 100.

Littoral/Literal

cover

I been moving back and forth between three books by Forrest Gander recently, looking mostly at the various ways in which he has worked with photographs in his poetry. In Core Samples from the World (New Directions, 2011) there are four poem sequences in which photographs by Raymond Meeks, Graciela Iturbide, and Lucas Foglia are situated. The photographs are each given their own page, so they aren’t really embedded within the text of the poem. Instead, Gander seems to propose that the reader take in the photographs as a visual parallel to his words. Separate but equal. An earlier book, Eye Against Eye (New Directions, 2005), includes a poem sequence entitled “Late Summer Entry: the  Landscapes of Sally Mann,” in which Gander’s poems directly address their visual counterparts on facing pages.

Gander’s newest book, Be With (New Directions, 2018), is riddled with the “searing exquisite singularity” of death. In 2016, his wife, the poet C.D. Wright, died suddenly, and a number of the book’s poems deal with the “grief-sounds” and the “tetric silence” that he experienced after this loss. There is also a long, moving, deeply personal poem titled “Ruth,” about Gander’s aging, failing mother, who struggles physically and has memory issues. His response to familial grief is to write poems that are fractured and disjointed, that abruptly change direction, and have what he calls a “rhythm of farewell.”

For me, the most fascinating work in Be With is the closing poem sequence titled “Littoral Zone” in which Gander presents a combination of words and photographs in a new and more complex relationship than he has previously attempted. “Littoral Zone” has six parts, each consisting of a photograph by Michael Flomen on the left hand page and one section of Gander’s poem on the opposing page. The six sections have subtitles that alternate between “Entrance” and “Exit,” suggesting that the poem as a whole represents the influx and the ebb of the tide that is hinted at by the title word littoral, which, Merriam-Webster.com tells me, is “the shore zone between the high tide and low tide points.” Each of the six written sections of the poem is subdivided into three verse paragraphs, with the center one printed in italics.

Gander Be With

There’s a further pattern to these six sections, as I’ll show using the example of the third and final “Exit” section of the poem sequence. The first verse paragraph is essentially an attempt to provide a verbal equivalent for what is visible in the photograph.

Mobbed phosphorescence, gaseous swarm. And breathbeats blazed into an invisible integument. To begin in intimacy on this volcanic tuff. Here to cling.

The middle verse paragraph tends to address the subject of sight or the act of seeing and seems to address the reader.

For though we have no criterion for how to see and are not sure what we are seeing, we are plunged into sensation. As into a novel ache. But what ever has dispassionate description delivered?

And the final verse paragraph shifts into the zone of erotics, with the poet intimately addressing a lover.

Your impact marks
throng the resin
of my mind. Declension
a focal spasm. When your
eyelids release their tension,
nocturnal pods, in-
vertebrate and
membranous, surge
into my dreams. From
afar, do you see me now
briefly here in this phantasmic
standoff riding
pain’s whirlforms?

Gander is poet who is not afraid to cause readers to consult their dictionaries once in a while, but “Littoral Zone” is chock full of specialized terms. (Hands up if you know the definitions of  “pelagic” or “lampyrid” or “levorotatory isomers,” for example.) I think Gander is both insisting on the highest level of precision he can attain and also reveling in wonderful terminology from disciplines that most of us don’t bump up against on a daily basis. I immediately thought of the way in which writer Robert Macfarlane introduces us to the lost or unfamiliar vocabularies of nature when he tweets his “word of the day”.

Flomen’s black-and-white images are about as abstract as something can be that is still recognizable as a photograph. In fact, they are cameraless photograms that Flomen makes using only sheets of photographic paper, moonlight, and whatever he can find in forests or streams, including grass, branches, snow, rocks. He made these images by plunging unexposed photographic paper into a stream or pond and letting water and more solid objects like grasses and pebbles create the images directly on the paper. In other words, nature is literally creating a photographic image of itself.

No matter how many times I read “Littoral Zone” it remains elusive and impossible to grasp as a whole. It’s a poem about the difficulty of knowing and the complex relationship between seeing and saying. I think the challenge he faced when confronted by the abstraction of Flomen’s photographs, knowing that they represent nature in its purest form, seems to have freed Gander. There is barely a hint of narrative to be found in Flomen’s stark images of light and darkness; therefore Gander’s poetic response could be, well, anything at all. And what he chose to do was go “optically active.” He riffs off Flomen’s images to create his own intimate landscapes and bodyscapes.

Struck by the pointlessness of comparison, but what more can one want?
For seeing not to degenerate into habit? And what if the demands for
another kind of seeing cannot be regarded as what we take to be “seeing”? As
one turns away, the retained image vitiates what swings into view.

Ω

In his Acknowledgements, Gander tells us that the sections of “Littoral Zone” were published individually “in earlier drafts” online in alligatorzine. The poems that appear in Be With have been pared down, made even more angular and abstract than their earlier versions. In several cases they have been almost entirely reworked. Here’s the original version of the poem I quoted above, which Gander previously titled “Littoral Zone 19,” and which was 18 words longer when first published:

Mobbed phosphorescence, a gaseous swarm upon which (impossibly) watermarks are stamped, rings clinging to invisible membrane, discrete, unrelated to the (lower) dimension of volcanic tuff, stone sponge, suggesting ground.

But though we have no criterion for how to see and are not sure what we are seeing, we are plunged into sensation. As into a novel pain. And yet pointing to it yields no shred of information.

The privilege of intimacy, a
kind of blackmail, would
face it out, the bally show
glimmerous as a trinket ring
to fetch code in the night
quarter and smell of lavender
may be partly regarded as a sinkhole
where strange laxities prevail on
the strength of what is
going to take place there.

I haven’t said much about the rest of Be With, but Dan Chaisson’s review in a recent issue of The New Yorker nails it.

Gander two books

“It is how to live”: Eleni Sikelianos

sikelianos-happy

Make Yourself Happy is the fifth book of poetry by Eleni Sikelianos issued since 2001 by the fine Coffee House Press, just north of me in Minneapolis. I’ve been reading and rereading this compelling book for the past two weeks. Kudos to Coffee House Press for turning out a beautifully designed and produced book that is visually elegant and wonderful to hold.

As a poet, Sikelianos like to think big. Her books deal with topics like science, mythology, history, ecology, extinction, and even, as she writes in one poem sequence in this new book, “the history of man.” Previous books have included a nearly 190-page poem dedicated to California (The California Poem) and a book-length biography in poems (You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek)). Sikelianos is also one of a handful of poets who regularly uses photographs in her books, with four of her Coffee House Press books having imagery of one kind or another.

Make Yourself Happy consists of three long poem sequences, followed by two short stand-alone poems. “Make Yourself Happy” is comprised of 39 individual poems.  Superficially, one might say that the sequence explores the many meanings of “happiness,” whether it’s eating croissants in Paris or simply being alive. But Sikelianos is after something far deeper and more complex than that. Slowly but surely, as this nearly 60-page poem sequence evolves, Sikelianos unravels the whole notion of happiness. Yes, there is a true, indomitable form of happiness that “baffles what’s trying to get in” to destroy it, but there are also false states of happiness that are driven by things as simple as the consumption of sugar-filled snacks or the indulgence in drugs like heroin. Heroin, violence, misery, and other decidedly unhappy themes are always lurking in these poems. In one poem, we see happiness used with decidedly Orwellian intent:

In the United Arab Emirates there is now a Ministry of Happiness
“You can be happy as long as you keep your mouth shut.

In a sly way, the title of this poem sequence is a reference to the pop culture and entertainment worlds that are dedicated to making us happy. (Remember songs like “Margaritaville” or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”?) The poem sequence opens with a version of the photograph that is also seen on the book’s front cover. It’s an ethereal image by Sikelianos’ husband, writer Laird Hunt, that captures the blur of people dancing and snapping photographs at a rock concert (note the snare drum or tom that appears to be floating in the air). The other photograph that appears in this sequence is a nearly abstract video still of a blurry roller skate taken at a roller derby. These two almost delirious images made me want to get far from my desk and buy a ticket to something that had nothing to do with literature.

Happiness is a topic that seems like the slipperiest of slippery slopes, especially for a serious poet. (Search Amazon for “happiness” and notice how many of the titles that pop up are self-help, many of dubious value.) Happiness is practically a cliche, and yet Sikelianos reminds us that sometimes it really is the most simple thing that stuns us into a state of happiness, even if for only a tenuous moment before a new worry sets in.

Earlier
I was feeling the hot sun on
my right hand while
driving it was
making myself happy—a pool of warmth in the webbing between thumb and index
like a Bermuda of pleasure that spread to the whole machine—but
worried
about liver spots

Ω

“How To Assemble the Animal Globe,” the second major sequence in the book, is a 58-page poem sequence structured geographically, continent by continent, eulogizing animals that have been forced into extinction. Sikelianos provides the pieces of an outline globe pattern for the reader to cut out and assemble, creating a globe of extinction, though I doubt many readers will want to deface the book to actually do this. In this “ghost dance of all the animals,” she reminds us through poems and images of what we are losing as we ruin our planet. The images of extinct animals include photographs, drawings, and prints.

animal-globe-sikelianos

The final sequence, “Oracle, or Utopia,” deals with Biosphere 2, a structure in Oracle, Arizona, just north of Tucson, which was designed to be a closed ecological system that would prepare humans for life on another planet. The original project ran into countless technical and human problems (not unlike our own current experiment on Earth) and lasted only two years. (Current news junkies might be aware of the fact that Steve Bannon – of Breitbart News and, now, the White House – was brought in by mega-millionaire and philanthropist Ed Bass to manage Biosphere 2, an assignment that ended in lawsuits, sexual harassment charges, and more. But I digress.) This poem covers some thirty-odd pages and opens with a ghostly photograph spread across two pages that shows the interior of the Biosphere.

“Epode,” one of the two poems the conclude the book strikes me as a summing up of all three poem sequences. The poem begins with the narrator feeling lost in among the roads, self-storage lots, and neon at the outskirts of a city (that seems to be Portland, Oregon), until she suddenly bursts out into the night, “away from Ikea & all.” Here’s the final half of the poem:

Surge & richness

depth    hardiness    color    air
touching
its mouth to all
of us

When you say Us you mean Earth’s

sounds & tint, spikes & curve,
each liquid shape     our very

wilds —

A band rumbles

brightly at the corner, a crowd percolates, someone
has cleared the glitter-
trash off the stage. You
are alive and in
a little shiver between cause & attentiveness, clockwise, counter-, Joy

shouts itself

Ω

eva-sikelianos-001

Facing this poem is a carefully scissor-cut photograph of Sikelianos’ daughter (also credited to Hunt). Her face and the three hands reaching for her seem to be festively daubed and decorated in blue paint. The goofy, even exuberant shape of the image seems to suggest a geographical outline more than anything else, but it also reminds me of the way in which Sikelianos’ poems are full of phrases and sentences whose meaning can only be intuited (“if I could pull a skillet from your face” or “It’s a watercolor in knots”). Instead of convincing us of their apparent truthfulness through rational means, strange photographs and phrases like these invoke some other more human means of communicating to us. When Sikelianos writes

What I mean and what I meadow
What I want and what I winnow

she comes close to the way that the nonsense of nursery rhymes seems to enter directly into our neural networks, bypassing any vetting process whatsoever.

It’s curious to me that more poets don’t deal with photographs in the same way that they deal with language. Poetry is a process of abusing language, ignoring rules, making the familiar strange, leaping before looking. Sikelianos is one of a handful of poets that I am aware of who has treated photographs in much the same way, by ignoring their original shape and undermining the perception that they accurately depict reality. She’s done this kind of thing before. In You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek) there are photographs that have been cropped to mystify the original subject and in The California Poem Sikelianos used torn and re-collaged reproductions of photographs and paintings to turn those images into poems of their own.

Ω

In closing, here’s her poem “One Way”:

“One way” into these woods
the sign says and
“no parking” as if
I’d want to park my carc-
ass in a patch of snow
a fuzz of white pine sapling says yes yes
in the wind then
no no!     when it says yes
and when it says no make a
go of
it. It
is how to live.

 

“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.

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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.

 

Hardly War

Hardly War

I 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.

Hardly War_0001-001

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.

Hardly War_0002-001

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”)

Hardly War_0003-001

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

Hardly War_0004-001

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 wall.

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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.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Graves_0001-001

Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (St. Paul: Graywolf, 2004) is a book-length prose poem filled with photographs and a few non-photographic images. It toggles between meditation and anger on a wide range of subjects, including death, cancer, depression (and anti-depressants), suicide, rape, 9/11, racism, history, politics, and literature, but the central trope is the ubiquitous television set. A repeated image of a static-filled television screen serves to separate the segments of the poem, signalling that Rankine is about to change the channel on us. The book’s epigraph from Aime Cesaire is an admonition to not be a spectator: “And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator,for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, a man who wails is not a dancing bear…” In Rankine’s poem, the television is so much a symbol for the media, it’s simply the biggest source of bad news and despair. In one section, with the controversial vote count over the reelection of George W. Bush as the backdrop, Rankine writes: “I stop watching the news. I want to continue, watching, charting, and discussing the counts, the recounts, the hand counts, but I cannot. I lose hope.”

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As the title implies, this is a very personal poem sequence, with a narrator who faces family deaths, takes an ever-changing menu of anti-depressants, and speaks directly to the reader. Whether this narrator bears any relationship to Rankine, though, is both unclear and irrelevant, because, in a very real sense, this narrator is narrating our own lives back to us. At first, I thought Rankine’s rather routine mixture of snapshots and media images imagery was rather mundane. But on closer inspection, it strikes me that her choice and use of imagery is crucial to the book’s tone. She often encloses photographs within her standard frame of a television set, which, in an odd way, makes them feel more familiar. Televised images are immediately, even if inadequately, contextualized. Collectively, the images tilt the book toward an informality, as if someone were talking to us while the television set drones in the background and we flip the pages of a newspaper. These are the images we are confronted with daily – images of politicians, press conferences, crime victims, celebrities – a relentless tide of insults and tragedies and deaths that threatens to benumb us. But however much the narrator might like to turn off the television and shut out the world, much of the impact of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely comes from the way in which we come to understand the persistent underlying interconnection of the personal, the social, the civic, and the economic.

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One of these images, however, has haunted me for days. It’s one of the most arresting and enigmatic uses of embedded imagery that I’ve yet to run across. The image is located in the midst of a brief reference to the 1998 murder of  James Byrd, Jr., an African American man who was beaten by three white men in Jasper, Texas, chained to the back of a pickup truck, and then dragged for miles until his body was literally torn to pieces. The narrator notes that President George W. Bush could not correctly recall the facts of the story. “You don’t remember because you don’t care,” the narrator pointedly tells Bush via the television screen. The unidentified image may or may not have anything to do with the murder or with Bush, it simply shows four sets of legs (from the knees down) standing around a shiny spot on a hard, paved surface of some kind. It’s not clear who the people represent, although a woman wearing a skirt either has black skin or very dark stockings. Does the shiny surface represent blood? Are the four figures all looking at the ground or is only the photographer fixated on the spot surrounded by their feet where the reflected heads of the figures seem to blend into each other? Are we to think of these people as connected with President Bush or with the victim or with one of his murderers? Each of these little puzzles and possibilities passed through my mind more or less simultaneously, making each of them equally plausible. It’s an inspired choice of image.

Graves-001

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely feels more like a dirge than a lyric. It is a powerful book about the struggle to find and maintain a moral position, to stave off loneliness and hopelessness, to not fall prey to the blind and blinding “American optimism” (she’s quoting Cornel West here). Only at the very end does Rankine’s narrator begin to address the ability of poetry to bridge the chasm between one person and another. On the penultimate page, Rankine writes this:

Or Paul Celan said that the poem was no different from a handshake. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem – is how Rosemary Waldrop translated his German. The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handshaking over (here) a self to another. Hence the poem is that – Here. I am here. This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive.

The poem then ends with these lines:

In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of.

But in this case, the end of the poem is not the end of the book, which goes on to provide an additional twenty-two pages of notes. In recent years, we’ve been seeing more and more works of fiction and poetry that conclude with lengthy notes and acknowledgements. Often, these notes simply give credit where credit is due for the sources of quotes and allusions, while  in the hands of authors like David Foster Wallace the notes feel more like an extension of the actual text. But I’m honestly not sure I know what to think about the notes appended to the end of Rankine’s book. There is something oddly educational or remedial about them. Many of the notes read like the commentary that a translator might append to a text to clarify cultural references that might be puzzling to the foreign reader. For example, the passing reference to the television show “Murder She Wrote” becomes the occasion for a summation of the show’s plot and a brief profile of its main character Jessica Fletcher. A reference to the writer J.M. Coetzee leads to a note telling us that he won the Nobel Prize in 2003. Read independently, they don’t detract from the power of the writing, but I wouldn’t want to be moving back and forth between Rankine’s poetry and the strange endnotes.

“A glimpse of one’s own exile”: The poems of Derek Jarman

Jarman cover

“November”

A glimpse of ones own exile
radiating across green lawns
passing geometric laughter
someone had painted the oak yellow

2014 is the twentieth anniversary of the death of Derek Jarman, artist and queer activist. Derek Jarman was one of those artists without boundaries, simultaneously pursuing filmmaking, painting, writing, creative gardening, set design, and more. His astounding notebooks, which look like overstuffed scrapbooks, were filled with collages, calligraphy, poetry, objects, drawings, and pasted images of all sorts.  As part of the celebrations, London’s Test Centre has reissued Jarman’s only published book of poetry. What’s especially interesting about A Finger in the Fishes Mouth is the fact that every poem is paired with an image from a postcard that Jarman collected.

Test Centre touts their reprint as a facsimile of the original 1972 publication by the tiny Bettiscombe Press, located in Dorset, which published a small number of books in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their list includes several small editions that combined the poetry and photography of the publishers Michael Pinney and John Miles. Jarman’s obscure book failed to sell and later in his life he destroyed what he had of the edition, and now only four copies are known to survive. Like the original, the new version of A Finger in the Fishes Mouth has mirrored front and back covers and an image by the rather colorful character Wilhelm von Gloeden on the front cover. Inside, the poems are all on the right hand pages, while the images are on the left. Each poem/image spread is separated by another double-page spread that is entirely blank except for a simple number identifying each poem’s number from 1 to 32.

Jarman sets the stage for his book by opening with a poem of an interior voyage, in which past, present, and future are collaged – or montaged.

“Poem II”

Now I am sailing on this rocking chair
back
back
to where tomorrow
washes the pavilions of today

Written roughly between 1964 and 1972, the poems in A Finger show Jarman still finding and refining his voice. But even though he shuffles through a handful of styles (including a haiku that’s three syllables too long), each poem exudes tremendous confidence. These are not the poems of an amateur.  Jarman admired the Beat poets and one can fine a couple of Beat cultural references here, such as the “heavenly automat” and “the billboard promised land.” But these are not poems written in the Beat idiom, though one or two will remind readers of Frank O’Hara.

“Six Pages I”

I dropped six pages of the sunday paper
At the edge of the field
and the wind blew away
Kings, princesses, whole
Countries, one presidential
election, and several
eminent letter writers

The poems in A Finger well up from a keen sense of observation and a rich imagination. They are filled with bits of nostalgia and self-reflection, with historical references, and a curiosity about ageing and mortality that reminds me of the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy more than anyone else. In some ways, the poems reflect mainstream trends of post-war writing. Jarman, for example, eschews rhyme and almost all punctuation and he uses line breaks to force the reader to closely examine phrases and sentences anew. Nevertheless, there is a conservative undertow to most of the poems, both in terms of style and content. For the most part they are personal poems, inspired by travel or by quiet reflective moments. Considering the time period in which these were written, there’s no anger, no psychedelia, and, in spite of the teasingly suggestive cover image, the poems are oddly prim, with only one “universal orgasm” and a few sculptural phalluses. The single dirty postcard that Jarman wanted to use was rejected by the original printers in 1972 and so Jarman pasted envelopes onto the space where the image should have resided and slipped copies of the postcard into the envelope. No reason is offered why this postcard of “a nun pleasuring a priest” is omitted in the reprint. But aside from whatever prurient interest the image might have had in its own right, it seems clear that its real function was to serve as commentary on the cheapening of rituals. In the facing poem called “Christmas 64,” the Three Magi must make their way through a thoroughly modern environment, past freeways and the political headlines of the newspaper, only to find that “someone had lost the baby.” Jarman’s biographer Tony Peake calls these poems “portentous,” and he’s right. Whatever their subject, they almost always contain some kind of omen or foreboding element. Although Jarman’s poems tend to be short – they all fit on a single page and most are less than two dozen lines long – they are richly complex and they get better and better with rereading.

The postcard images that accompany the poems represent a range of postcard types: quirky, banal, touristic, religious, historical, modern. But Jarman, ever the great colorist, had them all reproduced in the same monotone green, a kind of pale, sickly green with a touch of yellow that reminds me a bit of pea soup. By eliminating all of the color variations in the originals, the images become instantly unified. Turning the images monochromatic green makes them simultaneously different from and yet equal to the facing text. It’s a brilliant move and one I don’t think any other poet or novelist has tried with images. The relationship between the image and the poem is usually more intuitive than literal. For example, the image facing “Poem II” (above) shows a pair of small boats being rowed beneath the overhang of an ocean grotto. And the image facing “November” (also above) shows the Pompey Column and a sphinx in Alexandria, Egypt. The postcard below of “Chief Sands Rock” faces a poem about a visit to Fargo, North Dakota, while the postcard of “Toyland” faces “Poem for Coleridge July 64.”

Jarman Fargo

Jarman Toyland

Peek into Derek Jarman’s notebooks in this video shot in the archives of the British Film Institute.

There will be a special event on February 19 at 7 PM at the London Review Bookshop:

Derek’s partner Keith Collins and his biographer Tony Peake will be joined by Ali Smith and Sophie Mayer to consider the poetic in Derek’s oeuvre and to read from the collection. In the spirit of collaboration for which Derek was renowned, the reading will also be offered to the audience, so that the whole collection will be heard on this most poignant of anniversaries. The evening will be hosted by Gareth Evans.

Found – in the Mountain

Coal Mountain Elementary

One of the things that can happen – perhaps uniquely – with poetry that appropriates existing texts is that this repositioning of a text into a poem can also dramatically redirect our understanding of that text back within its original source. Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009) does exactly that. Coal Mountain Elementary is a kind of activist poetry comprised of preexisting texts that have been combined with color photographs by Nowak and British photojournalist Ian Teh.

The book gives us three radically different modes of written discourse on the subject of coal mining: newspaper accounts of mining disasters in China, verbatim testimony from survivors of the deadly January 2006 Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, and the American Coal Foundation’s suggested curriculum guide for school children. In addition, we are given two distinct sets of photographs – Nowak’s photographs of American mining towns and Teh’s portraits of Chinese miners and images of miners at work.

It doesn’t take long to figure out the book’s basic game plan. The testimony of the Sago Mine survivors more or less walks us through the day of the disaster in the words of the miners. The newspaper excerpts provide factual and historical background for numerous mine disasters, reminding us (among other things) of the horrible frequency with which these events occur. And the photographs bring us face to face with the miners, the conditions in which they work,and the communities in which they live and die. Unified, these elements weave a deliberately stark contrast with the oversimplified, sugar-coated image of mining offered by the American Coal Foundation. The book is divided into three main sections, each named after an elementary school level lesson plan developed by the American Coal Foundation

OBJECTIVES:

Students will
1. participate in
a simulated “mining”
of chocolate chips
from cookies,
using play money to purchase
the necessary property,
tools, and labor;
2. understand
the various costs
associated with mining coal,
including environmental remediation,
as demonstrated in the simulation; and
calculate costs and profits
from cookie mining
and relate them to the mining industry.

Needless to say, within the loaded context of Coal Mountain Elementary, the failure of the school lesson plans to make any reference whatsoever to the dangers of mining or the “cost” of death and disability to the miners makes us realize that these innocent-looking “lesson plans” are actually corporate propaganda.

So let’s look beyond the activist message at the very curious type of poetry we have here. As the book begins, we immediately read a newspaper account of a mining disaster in China in which the wife of a dead miner is quoted as saying “I have no language for my feelings…and there’s no way anybody else can understand it.” Throughout Coal Mountain Elementary the quotations from surviving miners and the widows of miners are strikingly subdued in the wake of the horror which has forever changed their lives. The testimonies given by the Sago miners are scattered throughout with phrases like “you know,” as each miner reaches a point in the recalling when he asks the listener to intuitively comprehend what he cannot utter.

And that morning I just – I did actually notice though and I made the comment of an old wive’s tale, you know, what does this mean, this lightning and thunder in January because where I’m from there’s always a – you know, the frogs in certain parts of the year and things like that. But I went to the door and opened the door because it was lightning and thunder carrying on so bad and it was so warm for the second day of January. You know, I asked two or three people, you know, what could this mean, you know. I mean, there’s got to be a tale of some sort, you know.

These transcript excerpts (which can be found in their entirety onlinebecome a poetry of circumvention, of reticence, of talking around the emotional issues. But then, these verbal statements were recorded under highly formal circumstances in the company of state mining officials, attorneys, and other investigators, which undoubtedly inflected the speech of the miners and rescuers. Nevertheless, reading the transcripts chosen by Nowak strictly as a form of discourse, there is something wonderful about the ebb and flow of unedited oral language, the meandering path toward the important point, the abrupt changes in direction, the sudden intense focus. 

Hang in there, we’re going to get you out. And I put myself, my eyes on his hand, and I noticed he had a wedding band on, and I’m thinking about this young man. And I watch his hand all the way out to see if he moved any, and that’s what I did. I was watching to see if I could see any movements. But I did notice his wedding band on his hand. He never did move his hand that I could see.

And, in fact, the miners had developed a code that referred to bodies as “items,” in hopes that anyone listening in on their radio conversations would not immediately realize that there were dead miners.

coal flowers

Likewise, transformed through its new context, the school lesson plans offered by the American Coal Foundation become a poetry of evasion, avoiding the harsh realities of coal mining in favor of a few banal subjects: “coal flowers”( a traditional craft in which pieces of coal are crystallized), “mining” for chocolate chips, and studying the sociology of the small towns that coal companies have provided for their workers.

Coal Mountain MinersUntitled photograph by Ian Teh

Nowak SagoUntitled photography by Mark Nowak

For a book about violent and sudden death, Coal Mountain Elementary is pretty restrained. The few flashes of anger and outrage at the poor wages, terrible working conditions, and repeated safety violations appear mostly in the newspaper journalism. But the impact of the book’s message is not restrained in the least.

See the related posts Found – in the Desert and Found – Midway on Life’s Journey.