So this is my last blog for the week. I meant to blog last night, but I ended up out late--we went to see a documentary film that my friend Katy Powell worked on with the photographer and filmmaker Richard Knox Robinson, called "Rothstein's First Assignment: A Story About Documentary Truth."
The film was an experimental documentary about Federal Security Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein, who was sent to Southwest Virginia in the 1930s to photograph people--ostensibly to capture mountain families and their way of life before they were displaced to establish Shenandoah National Park--as part of Roy Stryker's team of photographers (which included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn, among others) who were employed to publicize the conditions of the rural poor in the United States.
The film used oral histories, photos, letters, books, and self-reflexive tactics to not only question the nature of documentary, but also establish a link between Rothstein's work and the eugenics movement, as many of the families that were evicted from their houses and moved off their property were institutionalized at places like the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded, in Lynchburg, where many of them were also forcibly sterilized. (For more on the eugenics movement in Virginia: a radio story from WVTF, a web exhibit from UVA's Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, and Paul Lombardo's book Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell.)
When we were driving home to Virginia from New York after Thanksgiving, we stopped for gas at the Sunoco off of Exit 7, on I-78 in New Jersey. It's not a particularly nice Sunoco, but it had a decent attached convenience store, and it was less crowded than the giant Pilot Flying J station across the street which was geared towards truckers. My son had to pee, so I started unbuckling him from his car seat, and as I was doing this, I saw three guys in hunting camouflage across the pumps from us, who were going in the door of the convenience store. What caught my eye was the fact that one of the guys was holding another, carrying him like a bride over a threshold. The man being carried had turned his head towards us, and he was laughing.
It wasn't until I got inside the store with my son that I saw that the man being carried had no legs. He was sitting at the counter on a stool, and his buddy who had been carrying him was perusing the beef jerky selection, and when that man turned towards me, I could see that half his face was scarred and pitted. When we finally figured out that the bathroom was outside, my son and I passed their pickup, its bed filled with hunting gear, wheelchair gear, camo tarps, and a USMC sticker.
I have no idea what to make of that image--the soldier in hunting camo being carried by his friend, laughing. I think of the C.K. Williams poem "From my Window," which has a paraplegic Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair in it, and his friend, who runs in circles in the snow, stamping out an infinity pattern, while the poet watches from his window. What do we do about images that are part of the stories that aren't really ours to tell? Or are they? Williams ends his poem with snow--"In the morning, nothing: every trace of him effaced, all the field pure white..." He brings the soldier and his friend into the frame, and then erases all traces of them. And now almost 40 years after Vietnam, our wars, and their impact on soldiers and their families, are mostly hidden from us.
It's snowing here, and tonight is the 4th night of Hanukkah--a holiday whose story has been cast and recast throughout the ages. In some tellings, it's the miracle (and the implicit divine intervention) that's important; the oil in the lamps in the Temple miraculously lasted for eight nights, rather than one. In other tellings, it's the rebellion the Maccabees waged against the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus that turns the story into one of uprising and resistance. In still other tellings, it's a story of anti-assimilation about Jews who held strong to their rituals and laws in the face of persecution.
As a poet, I cast and recast, contextualize and bend my images, shift my narratives. Like many artists, I try to create an emotional truth in my work. Tonight I'm watching the orange snow-sky and thinking about who gets to speak for whom, about agency, about image, and about the slippery notion of truths.
Exercise of the night: Write about an image or scene (in detail) that doesn't belong to you--that you've overheard or caught sight of by accident. See if you can connect it to some kind of other narrative or image that it doesn't seem directly tied to. Use these two similar/disparate things to make a poem that becomes a new third thing.
Poem of the night:
"Epilogue" by Robert Lowell
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.