Thursday, November 25, 2010

In memoriam: the author of a poem called "In Memoriam James Joyce"

Scowling out from a review of his correspondence with a fellow Scottish nationalist poet, the photograph of Hugh MacDiarmid comes before us saying, "Clothes make the man." The bard poses for the camera in the full garb of a national poet, with his stockings pulled up, his sporran tidily centered, his tie tied, and every hair on his massive head decisively oiled into place. In one hand he holds the emblem of a man of letters, a pipe; in the other he holds the emblem of a man of the Scottish soil: a mess of fish, caught without getting a drop of water on the dry-clean-only costume. The effect is of Marie Antoinette modeling a statue of Kim Il Sung: heroism tastefully restraining itself from the vulgarity of verisimilitude.

Click to enlarge.

But the photograph's proportions are wrong. Perhaps because the camera may have been aimed downhill at MacDiarmid, his height appears to be less than six times the length of his head. Those are the proportions of a child's body, not an adult's.

However, a Photoshop edit can increase the ratio to about 7, and with a smaller head and longer legs the poet begins to look more like a man.

But a heroic poet deserves to be looked at through eyes made heroic by a visit to the optometrist, like the one who fits Dorothy with green glasses in the Emerald City. So let's change the proportions horizontally as well as vertically.

Or, with the distortion-revealing words erased and the contrast made dramatic:

MacDiarmid's fish are still fish, but Photoshop has transferred them to the public viewing area of their aquarium. Now at the front of their image and proportionally larger than they ever were in what's called real life, they have become what the Milton of Areopagitica thought of when he thought of the idea embodied in a good book: something "embalmed and treasured up to a life beyond life." Holding the Photoshop technician's great spoil in his large new place, the bard triumphantly enters a new domain of literature: the domain whose tenancy he holds on art's terms, not his own. There, the dead fish are part of an array of symbols, and the national bard who shares his emblem with them is a MacDiarmid avant ses lettres: a visible notion of the Celt as such, like James Joyce's Citizen.

The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero. From shoulder to shoulder he measured several ells and his rocklike mountainous knees were covered, as was likewise the rest of his body wherever visible, with a strong growth of tawny prickly hair in hue and toughness similar to the mountain gorse (Ulex europaeus). The widewinged nostrils, from which bristles of the same tawny hue projected, were of such capaciousness that within their cavernous obscurity the fieldlark might easily have lodged her nest. The eyes in which a tear and a smile strove ever for the mastery were of the dimensions of a goodsized cauliflower. A powerful current of warm breath issued at regular intervals from the profound cavity of his mouth while in rhythmic resonance the loud strong hale reverberations of his formidable heart thundered rumblingly causing the ground, the summit of the lofty tower and the still loftier walls of the cave to vibrate and tremble.

One more of the intentions latent in a poet's costumed pose may now have been fulfilled. In this iteration the poet is seen saying, among other things, "Pity the national bard of a vegetarian culture."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

New chapbook

A small collection of my photographs, 11 Blue, is now online at The link is clickable on the Issuu shelf at the bottom of this page.

Saturday, November 6, 2010



As I drink my tea, I look at the bottle from which it has come flowing toward my mouth. The bottle assures me that I am beautiful, and furthermore that my beauty has a history. Its legitimacy and reason for being originated in the mouth of the Duchess of Bedford, and the Duchess of Bedford must have been a beautiful woman who wore a hat.

Click to enlarge.


The catalog of the art dealer Phillips de Pury opens in my computer, adding icons in the center of the screen to the icons already on permanent display in the margins.

Some of the central icons display as thumbnails: little pictorial allusions to history's way of knowing. Oh, of course: those are the Arbus twins. But the online publisher has opened the catalog to a larger icon, one whose caption we may have to depend on for information. It hasn't been immer schon internalized in the form of ironic connoisseurship, as the Arbus image may have been. Outside the aura of certainty which gives the glow to an iconic name like Arbus, we drift toward the photograph's caption space, and there with some relief we spot a flock of speaking words. The words fly toward us to say that the photographer was named Lillian Bassman, and in 1949 she created an image and gave it a name of its own with some other names inside it: "Fantasy on the dance floor: Barbara Mullen, dress by Christian Dior, Paris."

The photograph forces us to read those words on its own terms. Beyond the word "model," I don't know who Barbara Mullen is, or was -- but the image is peremptory in its insistence that I do know, I must. Fashion photography exists to teach us the lovely deadly fiction that cloth and color and pose are eternally real, real for the only length of time that can be significant: the instant it takes to see and catch our breath and then forget again. For that long and only that long, there was Barbara Mullen. But forever there will be (in ascending order) shoulder fingers mouth nose hat.


Hat, encore:

Casper Emerson, Jr., 1918. From 
60 Great Patriotic Posters, ed. Mary Carolyn Waldrep
(Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010), image 014.

"The body dies, the body's beauty lives," chants Wallace Stevens. The war ended, the war will never end. See how the hat shapes evanescent life into eternal geometry.