Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Local Habitation

"A picture is worth a thousand words"; a typical cliche with much truth beneath the gloss. As one who has made his living as a writer, I have to agree that the attempt to describe something accurately--rather than partially evoking it, let's say--is a tricky business; what empirical details are needed? can the words actually match the image? how much needs to be said (written, that is)? a thousand words, really?

What I have always valued is the idea that "less is more," fewer but right words, and one's individual imagination, believing that our internal images are stronger than the actual visualization. I cherish the listening experience, for example, be that music, information on the radio, or people conversing, whether to me or to someone else--eavesdropping, yes. Yet I do love movies, and seeing the world, and a beautiful face or body. (This blog is called "I Witness" for a reason. It's not only eyes doing the witnessing.)

And so we come back to pictures, whether great art or simple snapshot photography. From early master Jacques Henri Lartigue to Life Magazine's David Douglas Duncan, from the many W.P.A. photogs to, yes, Ansel Adams and Diane Arbus, from Robert Capa to Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz and scores more, I have found pleasure and fascination in, mostly, black-and-white photography.

Yet I am a word man. Only rarely do I ever place my own hand on a camera, depending instead on powers of observation and memory and description to do the job. During that 19-month trip around the world, for example, I took no camera, vowing instead to recount the experiences in a journal and poems instead. Well, you win some, you lose some, and some get rained out... as another cliche puts it. Much of the journal bogs down in insignificant details, not to mention the occasional banalities. And the poems? Well, just be glad I'm posting--slowly, please note--only a dozen or so drawn from those two years of travel.

Like most poets, a verbal test I have enjoyed occasionally is the attempt to render some striking painting or photograph in words. English poet Charles Tomlinson is one master at that (he was a painter as well), and W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Bishop were others who succeeded. This posting today presents a pair of my own attempts linked to favorite photos by Kertesz (begging the question slightly, I am showing his photos too).

Kertesz loved unexpected perceptions: architectural details, patterns found, people in odd moments, often viewed from skewed angles (from a hotal room looking out and down was a favorite). His photos are art; my poems are mere pastiche, but possibly amusing. See how many of my words it takes to "give to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name..."

Kertesz: Two Photos

I. “Disappearing Act”

See where the partial man ascends to nowhere,
Bare legs and baggy shorts cut off in mid-air
By massive beams, broad horizontal stripes.
Vertical bar-like wires, supporting steps
Dangling in space, enclose him in a prison,
Sentenced to higher climbs. Whatever season
He’s risen in, the background verge shows scrub
And sand, tideland and piers beyond, a drab
Seaside community in haze; he could be
In Queensland, the Camargue, or close to Kitty
Hawk. That it’s “New York, 1955”
Seems apt, a site no harder to believe
Than this image magique, with printed contrast
So bright the air and house above are one vast
Field of off-white, with lines precisely squared:
Magritte reworked by Mondrian. But where
His head should be, a block of mirror, window,
Or trick exposure renders man a Hindu
Fakir vanishing up his rope of stairs
To graphic truth: in time, one disappears.

II. “Rainy Day”

“Tokyo, 1968”: umbrellas,
from above, across
a gray curve of street as mirror-dull as
a river embossed
by flooding; twelve well-suited businessmen
on parade, in rain,
herded, hurrying, reflecting but un-
thinking--a dozen
open brollies obviously no more
au courant than one,
here in the land of the rising water.
Oblivious, thus,
to the yen for P.T. Barnum’s patter,
these damp gentlemen
yet follow a bright-painted, quite non-Zen-
sical white arrow:
“This way to, not Progress, but the Egress.”

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