In celebration of National Poetry Month, Don’t Take Pictures has curated a selection of photography-related poems.
Mary Doria Russell
All bone, no meat
Growing, not grown.
Nothing to show.
Diving, but still dry.
The cardboard shows me how it was
When the two girl cousins went paddling
Each one holding one of my mother’s hands,
And she the big girl - some twelve years or so.
All three stood still to smile through their hair
At the uncle with the camera, A sweet face
My mother’s, that was before I was born
And the sea, which appears to have changed less
Washed their terribly transient feet.
Some twenty- thirty- years later
She’d laugh at the snapshot. “See Betty
And Dolly," she’d say, “and look how they
Dressed us for the beach." The sea holiday
was her past, mine is her laughter. Both wry
With the laboured ease of loss
Now she’s has been dead nearly as many years
As that girl lived. And of this circumstance
There is nothing to say at all,
Its silence silences.
This is a Photograph of Me
It was taken some time ago
At first it seems to be
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;
then, as you scan
it, you can see something in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.
In the background there is a lake,
and beyond that, some low hills.
(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.
I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.
It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or how small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion.
but if you look long enough
you will see me.)
The flame crept up the portrait line by line
As it lay on the coals in the silence of night’s profound,
And over the arm’s incline,
And along the marge of the silkwork superfine,
And gnawed at the delicate bosom’s defenceless round.
Then I vented a cry of hurt, and averted my eyes;
The spectacle was one that I could not bear,
To my deep and sad surprise;
But, compelled to heed, I again looked furtive-wise
Till the flame had eaten her breasts, and mouth, and hair.
“Thank God, she is out of it now!” I said at last,
In a great relief of heart when the thing was done
That had set my soul aghast,
And nothing was left of the picture unsheathed from the past
But the ashen ghost of the card it had figured on.
She was a woman long hid amid packs of years,
She might have been living or dead; she was lost to my sight,
And the deed that had nigh drawn tears
Was done in a casual clearance of life’s arrears;
But I felt as if I had put her to death that night!
— Well; she knew nothing thereof did she survive,
And suffered nothing if numbered among the dead;
Yet—yet—if on earth alive
Did she feel a smart, and with vague strange anguish strive?
If in heaven, did she smile at me sadly and shake her head?
Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album
At last you yielded up the album, which
Once open, sent me distracted. All your ages
Matt and glossy on the thick black pages!
Too much confectionery, too rich:
I choke on such nutritious images.
My swivel eye hungers from pose to pose —
In pigtails, clutching a reluctant cat;
Or furred yourself, a sweet girl-graduate;
Or lifting a heavy-headed rose
Beneath a trellis, or in a trilby-hat
(Faintly disturbing, that, in several ways) —
From every side you strike at my control,
Not least through those these disquieting chaps who loll
At ease about your earlier days:
Not quite your class, I’d say, dear, on the whole.
But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
And will not censor blemishes
Like washing-lines, and Hall’s-Distemper boards,
But shows a car as disinclined, and shades
A chin as doubled when it is, what grace
Your candour thus confers upon her face!
How overwhelmingly persuades
That this is a real girl in a real place,
In every sense empirically true!
Or is it just the past? Those flowers, that gate,
These misty parks and motors, lacerate
Simply by being you; you
Contract my heart by looking out of date.
Yes, true; but in the end, surely, we cry
Not only at exclusion, but because
It leaves us free to cry. We know what was
Won’t call on us to justify
Our grief, however hard we yowl across
The gap from eye to page. So I am left
To mourn (without a chance of consequence)
You, balanced on a bike against a fence;
To wonder if you’d spot the theft
Of this one of you bathing; to condense,
In short, a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm and dry,
It holds you like a heaven, and you lie
Unvariably lovely there,
Smaller and clearer as the years go by.