by Daniel Bosch
Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander
by Adam Kirsch
Other Press, New York, 116 pp.
What does it matter what I think I know about the photograph above, a studio portrait of brothers taken in France in the 1870s? When it comes to the photograph’s translation into language, shouldn’t the elements of such a speechless photograph have a literal and figurative priority over my “speech” (my thoughts, my guesses, and my intuitions)? Any words I put together regarding such an old photograph should contend with—neither ignore nor strike out—what the photograph communicates non-verbally. My looking at the picture may yield a verbal list, less or more fully developed, written down or mental, of its elements; my looking may entail a literal coming to terms with it, and may be absolutely necessary, but even so it is very likely to fall far short of an understanding.
Sentencing that inventory only makes the ekphrastic problem worse. Watch how fast a spell cast by words takes effect:
The photograph above “is” neatly-parted hair and thick, dark wool fabric; it is buttons of hardwood or bone; it is stiff laces, still stiffer cuffs, and broad white collars. The photograph attests to arms akimbo and establishes a mute rhythm of alabaster hands. It acknowledges a punctiliously ruined stucco faux pediment. It allows us to count four just-shined high boots (sheaths for skinny calves). The double-breasted coat of the elder boy marks his seniority (if not his maturity); the pair of broad-patterned silk cravats may corroborate the subjects’ subjection to Maman’s idea of fashion, to her preference for an effortful nonchalance.
Too syntactically playful to be objective, too reliant upon standard ideas and tropes to be original, and too brief to be exhaustive, my catalog of the photograph (which followed upon a half an hour of study) yet approaches the limits such a portrait sets for a prose writer who is determined both to tell the truth and truly to address the picture’s elements and not merely to use them as points of departure.
Would those limits be different if I were a student of the history of France, or the history of fashion? Would I be correct to find in such a photo references to the establishment of the Third Republic, or to bourgeois refractions of nineteenth century aristocratic fashion? And what if In Search of Lost Time were my favorite novel? The boy at right—Marcel Proust—cannot yet have imagined he will write a fiction that will alter the course of French literature. Should the fact that he would so fruitfully search for lost time, a fact that is in now way implied by the photo, fuel (or put some sort of governor) on my production of words about this picture? Can I keep my relation to Proust’s work from entering into my seeing and saying? (At the very least I should hope to be stifled with regard to the prospect of composing vivid prose about Proust’s childhood; he has cleared that ground.) Some writers of prose have used historical lenses to induce readings of old photographs that are vivid and articulate, and others have used them to generate an impure nonsense, but even in prose, and even when the subject addressed is not particularly good, as in the photograph above, ekphrastic writing is always fraught.
Adam Kirsch’s Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander raises stakes which are already high. Not only does the book take up one of the most important documentary art projects of the 20th century, August Sander’s Citizens of the World, but by writing in lines, Kirsch promises more than commentary or insight. Each of the 46 pieces of Emblems must provide its own warrant for existing, a compelling “isness” independent of its relation to the image it addresses. Alas, both the complexity of Sander’s images and their polyvalence with regard to 20th century history prove too much for Kirsch to handle. He reads Sander’s photographs through attitudes he held before he started looking; he stops looking too soon; he conjures items not pictured; his logic goes haywire; and he reaches after banalities and reductions. Even Kirsch’s strength in musical composition colludes with his slapdash readings, instead of inducing richness and complication. His emblematic readings of Sander’s pictures are neither useful introductions to the pictures nor strong poems in themselves.
I have explored a wide range of problems with the Emblems project elsewhere. In light of the characteristic brevity of the pieces of Emblems (27 are 16 lines long), I will attend here only to “Farming Family,” the 28 lines of which constitute an extended discourse. Might this longer-than-average piece feature extended attention to Sander’s photograph, and perhaps a deepening of imaginative and critical engagement with the photograph it takes as its subject?
To make his picture, “Farming Family, 1912,” Sander posed four female and three male figures in their Sunday best, en plein air, against a sylvan backdrop. As with many of Sander’s photographs, little can be said with certainty about the specific legal or genetic relationships of the subjects. (Who is the parent or spouse of whom? The caption doesn’t specify). The eldest female and (perhaps) the eldest male are seated in chairs brought outside for the group portrait. Perhaps the man who stands at far right, ready to strum his guitar—I’ve seen his like on folk-rock album covers—is the father of the two children in the picture, perhaps that is his wife at his elbow. We might be right to say that’s his family’s dog reclining at his feet. Yet as I will show, nothing the speaker of Kirsch’s “Farm Family” has to say about Sander’s photograph is necessary for or sufficient to an ethical making-sense of it; nor is our emotional grasp of the photo enriched by Kirsch’s speaker’s confused and confusing language.
Farming Family, 1912. Via.
Kirsch’s piece stands on a flimsy premise: readers will not find what we expect in Sander’s photograph, for his artifices have in this case not intensified the realities of the subjects’ lived experiences. Before one might (reasonably) object that it is very hard to know what such realities might be, Kirsch’s speaker, who is sure what they are, starts to enumerate them:
The cruelty of the men when they’re alone,
The women’s tiredness and resignation,
Do not get multiplied, as you’d expect,
When the extended families collect,
One day a year, to get their picture taken.
It’s not that any of their faces soften,
Nor that there’s any obvious affection
Between the farmer’s mother and his son;
And only an idealist could see
In this brief cutting from the family tree
A symbol of the strength of rootedness—
Three generations dwelling in one place—
Knowing how soon the root will lose its branch,
Cut down and hacked to pieces in a trench.
The only explanation that makes sense
For the illusion of resilience
That lights their eyes and makes them look at home
Is that with every added generation
Buried potentialities appear:
The son whose strumming his guitar
Refutes his father’s brandished Iron Cross
No more convincingly than his bare face
Proves that his father’s beard is obsolete;
Denying one another, they complete
Their likeness to the contradictory
God who commanded us to multiply
So He could manifest, in every birth,
Another of His attributes on Earth.
This is a typical piece of Emblems in that much of what the speaker says is awkwardly phrased, impossible to picture, or both:
Does Kirsch’s speaker mean to suggest, by the phrase “when they’re alone,” that the cruelty of a German man is purest when no one else is present (“Wenn ein Baum fällt in den Wald…”)? Or does he mean that men are most cruel when they gather without the company of women and children? The distinction should matter.
Kirsch’s lunge to rhyme “expect” with “collect” is strained because we do not expect to find in the photo what the speaker says we do, and because people gather, they do not “collect” like rainwater in a barrel.
Sander is not the precursor of Nicholas Nixon—he did not take this family’s portrait once a year.
The depictions of faces in still photos do not “soften,” so why is the possibility of softening posited?
The seated woman may not be the “farmer’s mother.” Why couldn’t it be that the David Crosby of the next village married the farmer’s daughter against Vati’s wishes? In this reading, the diagonal of female bodies in the photo would constitute a sort of emotional firewall.
The branch/son as described in Kirsch’s metaphor is “cut down” and then “hack(ed) to pieces.” Did French, British, Australian, and American soldiers in World War I typically chop up the the bodies of German, Austrian, Turkish, or Bulgarian soldiers after they had shot or stabbed or fragged them? Perhaps Kirsch knows they did. But if this terrible fate was likely, the piece doesn’t make clear what difference this would make to this farming family with regard to the loss of its branch/son.
Kirsch’s metaphorical family tree is expressed in an awkward image, for a branch grows from another branch, or from the trunk of a tree, not from its “roots”
No one in the picture wears, let alone “brandishes,” an Iron Cross
Nothing—certainly not a generation—was “added” to Sander’s still photograph
The “son” (as Kirsch would have it—see below) does not have a “bare face,” but wears a mustache
Could a son in Germany in 1912 “refute” a father’s beard by keeping his own chin smooth? Is Kirsch insinuating an argument about an implicit family dynamics expressed by the beards of hipsters?
Contra Kirsch, a being’s multiple attributes do not imply that it is “contradictory”—especially if it is a Supreme Being. Nor does the complexity of a photograph imply that we can say whatever we want to about it.
Before I read Kirsch’s “Farming Family” it had never occurred to me to “expect” a Sander photo to give me access to the cruelty of the men depicted in it. (Nor do I expect, from my observation of the portrait of the brothers Proust, to learn anything from it about the novelist’s sensitivity: it is not the proper data set.) I confess that it had occurred to me, however, that the speakers of lines trying to become a poem should only tell me what I am thinking if their statement of my expectations is going to get us somewhere lucid and interesting.
His so elaborately confused rumination on “Farming Family, 1912,” recalls Kirsch’s earlier work in its foregrounding of iambic measure (“that LIGHTS their EYES and MAKES them LOOK at HOME,” or “So HE could MAN i-FEST, in EV ‘ry BIRTH,”) as if iambic measure is self-justifying. And, as in his earlier books, Kirsch makes sweet sounds in some lines and stanzas, and especially at the ends of pieces. In “Farming Family,” Kirsch builds sonic textures I might appreciate if they had been achieved without interpretative violence. The matching of “Cross” (l. 21) and “face” (l. 22) for example, or of “affection” (l. 7) and “soften” (l. 8) introduces a sonic complexity that Kirsch’s interpretative schemes cannot abide, and that he rejects outright, as when he reaches for “son” (l. 9) as a complicating sound. Triple rhyme—even loosened to triple slant rhyme—is never easy, and I admire Kirsch’s taking a shot, but here the third term “son” literally sounds too good to be true because it resolves the very ambiguities which characterize Sanders’ photographs and which delineate why this particular picture belonged to the Sander’s Citizens of the World project.
The power of Sander’s “Farm Family (1912)” rests in these ambiguities, which his pictures share like a species shares a genome. Fictions which decide such ambiguities reduce the complexity of Sander’s work even when they are coherent and powerful, and Kirsch’s almost never are. His “Farming Family,” is like almost all of the pieces of Emblems, in that it fails to understand the species of work it must kiss when the book is closed.
Earlier I suggested that a proper humility might well keep me from composing prose fictions about the studio portrait of the brothers Proust. I should be inhibited not only because writing about images is hard, but because the fictions I would be likely to create could be hardly much of value to the extraordinary discourse in the novels of Marcel Proust, who was a direct witness to that complicated moment in the photo studio and to the complexity of his own childhood.
In his brief introduction to the book, Kirsch explains that in looking at Sander’s photographs, “we are remembering more than we are actually seeing.” The statement is true enough in specific regard to Kirsch’s faulty approach to the pictures, and it may be true for other viewers, as far as it goes. But we should not prefer fuzzily subjective pseudo-nostalgia to the visible contents of the Sander archive. Strong writing in response to Citizens of the World will only come from actually seeing. As we see in Emblems of the Passing World, when one is busy remembering what one has already thought, one can forget to write poems.
About the Author:
In 1998, Daniel Bosch was awarded the first Boston Review Poetry Prize for four poems riffing on films starring Tom Hanks. His work has been published in journals such as Poetry, Slate, The TLS, Agni, Berfrois, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, The Fortnightly Review, andThe Paris Review, and a collection of his poems, Crucible, was published by Other Press in 2002. His set of triolets called Octaves is downloadable for free at beardofbees.com. Daniel has taught writing at Boston University, Harvard University, Tufts University, Merrimack College, Walnut Hill School for the Arts and Emory University.