Several weeks ago I discovered a photograph of my mother
sitting in the sun, her face flushed as with achievement or triumph.
The sun was shining. The dogs
were sleeping at her feet where time was also sleeping,
calm and unmoving as in all photographs.
I wiped the dust from my mother’s face.
Indeed, dust covered everything; it seemed to me the persistent
haze of nostalgia that protects all relics of childhood.
In the background, an assortment of park furniture, trees and shrubbery.
I found myself slightly disoriented, as I read these first few stanzas (it’s a somewhat longer poem than the previous Pushcart offerings in this volume; fortunately, it’s available online). We’re looking at a photograph; but then, is the sun shining in the photograph, or in the speaker’s time and place, which is also in the past? That resolves in the next sentence with the dogs “sleeping at her feet” but kept coming back as I read on; just a few lines later: “The more dust I removed, the more these shadows grew./Summer arrived.” I think that’s the main conceit of the poem: the blurry line between the “now” of looking at the photograph, and the “now” captured by the photograph, a kind of immersion via a photograph, and metaphor of clearing the dust, in the moment captured.
Perhaps the question that had the most impact later was my notation beside the last line about park furniture and shrubbery in the background: “What is this line doing here?” We’d moved away from description of the photograph, the dogs at her feet; why return to it, with such seemingly inconsequential details? One thing I’ve discovered about poetry: nothing is inconsequential, nothing is out of place, and if it seems that way, it must be something very important is carried there.
That something didn’t become obvious to me until the fourth section of the poem:
Beatrice took the children to the park in Cedarhurst.
The sun was shining. Airplanes
passed back and forth overhead, peaceful because the war was over.
This final section roots itself firmly in the present of the past, with “Beatrice” – this is a shift in viewpoint, from the personal gaze of the daughter to the style of a third-person narrator – in the park. Oh, that’s why the benches and shrubbery of the second stanza, the line that seemed so out of place.
We are now fully in the photograph, in its time (the war was over – which war? So many to choose from) and place (which place?) and Beatrice has taken the children to the park near Cedarhurst, but I still have the sense we’re in Europe after WWII, because of the reference to the planes and the newly arrived peace. That’s contraindicated by the text. Still, it’s emphasized by one of the final stanzas, dark even though the war is over, the dust has cleared:
She sat on a bench, somewhat hidden by oak trees.
Far away, fear approached and departed;
from the train station came the sound it made.
The sky was pink and orange, older because the day was over.
It’s purely my own bias, I suppose, that when I see the juxtaposition of fear and trains and the past and war, I think Holocaust.
A lot goes on in between the first and fourth section, of course: a hand-annotated paperback copy of Death in Venice (I’m sure there’s more to mine here, but I’m not that familiar with the work, though the mention of margin notes “sometimes in words but more often/in spirited questions and exclamations” made me smile; yes, I do that, too, question marks, exclamation points, arrows, emoticons. My books, the ones I love the most, are a mess; they’re also very personal), the shift of summer to autumn, a word that pops into the speaker’s head “and as quickly vanished. Was it blindness or darkness, peril, confusion?” Are those the possible words, or the sense evoked by the words? And the “immodest god”: “Things are, he says, They are, they do not change;” reminding me of the Hebrew tetragrammaton for the name of God, YHWH, often translated into English as “I am that I am.” Then a shift back to impending disaster: “How quiet it is, how silent,/like an afternoon in Pompeii.” But what disaster? I don’t know.
Shifting. That’s what I kept thinking as I read this poem with its shifting time, its shifting point of view, shifting seasons: it’s intentionally written to blur the lines between what is in the photograph and what is sensed by the speaker. Shifting boundaries.
Poetry Magazine’s guide to the poem offers another view: stasis, shifting to motion in the final section, and cites the use of the imperfect forms of verbs as giving “the impression of a scene still setting itself.…” I wish I’d noticed that. These are the things that make poetry, poetry.
A photograph, like poem, can take us places – in this case, back in time.