July 17, 2012 § Leave a comment
Photographs offer much to writers: as W G Sebald said, ‘there’s a great deal of memory in them.’1 Sebald used photographs as part of his narratives, teasing the reader over their provenance and authenticity as part of the historical life of his narrators.
For a poet, photography can provide a personal trigger, unlocking either autobiography (Heaney’s portrait of his great-uncle in ‘Ancestral Photograph’ – ‘This barrel of a man penned in the frame’) or psychology (Plath’s typically unsettling image in ‘Paralytic’ – ‘Photographs visit me – / My wife, dead and flat, in 1920 furs, / Mouth full of pearls, / Two girls / As flat as she, who whisper ‘We’re your daughters.’). It can define, or blur, the distinction between poet, speaker and subject – in Plath, a ghost speaking to ghosts.
Clearly, there is something about photographs which inspires poets (in that vatic sense of ‘giving breath’). In Douglas Dunn’s ‘St Kilda’s Parliament: 1879 – 1979’, the islanders, both temporally and linguistically, are a lost people – ‘you will surely hear Gaelic / Spoken softly like a poetry of ghosts’; but their invocation elicits a deep connection with ourselves:
You also see how each is individual,
Proud of his shyness and of his small life
On this outcast of the Hebrides
With his eyes full of weather and seabirds,
Fish, and whatever morsel he grows here.
What photographs can offer, I think, comes back to the earlier discussions here regarding the relationship between the lyric moment and the narrative: the centripetal and the centrifugal. A snapshot which stills the passage of lives emphasises the moment as momentary, behind and before which past and future stretch infinitely.
1. The Guardian, 22 September, 2001
QUINTA DEL SORDO, AROUND 1900
‘The house of the deaf man’. Francisco de Goya lived in the house between 1819 and 1823, during which time he covered its interior walls with a series of murals which later became known as the Black Paintings. In 1873 the house was bought by Baron Frederic d’Erlanger who had the paintings removed and transferred to canvas.
He would have it demolished after this.
Riddled with climbers, the windows
shuttered or broken, it sits in the glare
peeling, like an old madhouse.
They stand, then, for a final time at the front:
the women in their heavy skirts, hands clasped,
his wife looking through him, the daughter
biting down on a scream; while the son loiters
by the door smoking, looking murderous.
Across the trickle of the Manzanares
Madrid is tolling its quarters, its people
cloistered from the afternoon, stirring
in their dreams of the afterlife.
This was what he found here: the thick cold
of the walls live with the cowls and cackles
of old Castile, drunk, white-eyed, holy
and so ancient, even caving them out of the plaster
left ghosts: the devil’s curled horns,
dark figures on a pilgrimage, red stains
where Jupiter slew his children and devoured them.