Sunday, February 27, 2011


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As of early 2011, the Huffington Post, an aggregation of blogs, is in the business news for its success with search engine optimization based on content-farmed articles. The notorious example from the beginning of the year was an article written to fill space below the title "What Time Is the Super Bowl?" Lots of people googled that query, lots of people were duly delivered to the article, and the Huffington Post wound up with lots of monetizable clicks.

Well, on Sunday, February 27, readers of Gannett newspapers saw this cover on their magazine section.

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Haec fabula docet: Gutenberg technology has caught up with the sensibility of the Net. I can't wait to see what's going to happen to the sex article (upper left corner of the cover) in the next issue of Cosmopolitan.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Moment of exposure

William P. Gottlieb, 1947 or 1948,
Portrait of George Weidler.
Gottlieb Jazz Photos, Library of Congress.
Click to enlarge.

As the music pressed forward and its pulse began to be felt, darkness gathered its force into as bright a fist as it could and pressed back. Orpheus was born in a darkness terrified into giving up its hoarded light.

Now, at a later time, Orpheus is ascending toward the light again. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A house in an old photograph

A summer afternoon, for instance: light dimmed by its passage under the roof of a porch, then admitted to the room through a curtained window. Those who live in the house can't be seen from this angle, but for the present fraction of a second they're all alive. Don't worry. Shadows of green-leaved branches move to assure you that this light suspended in warm air isn't just a picture.

The picture itself is just out of camera range. It is a picture of people known to have lived here, and it's nailed to a wall where it seemed meant to be. We know that because just on the other side of the wall there was nothing but green leaf and moving shadow. That was where somebody set down a tripod and uncapped a lens.  

But when mind's lens opens, it opens in this room, among unpredicted little adjustments of the light as a breeze moves the leaves and flows past them through the windows. Here, inside, the light is in motion. All that it falls on as it moves is becoming what was. It is what the lens will have failed to register as it stilled the shade.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Monday, February 21, 2011

Synecdoche: how a dark age arrives

From the admirable site Detroitfunk, this slide show of a public library abandoned with the books still on their shelves.

Do you think there's a chance that you may remember some of these images? Then consider dedicating that memory to the spirit of Constantine Cavafy, the poet of dying civilization. Here, from the online Cavafy archive, is one of his elegies.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

For Wisconsin: how they do it in Galt's Gulch

I was just settling into my seat when the flight attendant approached with a request: in order to let a mother sit with her small child, would I mind moving to another seat? Of course I didn't mind. The flight attendant thanked me, led me to my new seat, and then rewarded me with a free headset.

I was grateful because the flight was United 1, nine nonstop hours from Chicago to Honolulu, and I was looking forward to the distraction. The man in the seat in front of mine was looking forward to the distraction, too, because when the flight attendant came back with her armload of rental headsets, he laid out his four dollars for one. I noticed the transaction because the man's face seemed familiar but I couldn't place it. Maybe, I thought, I'd seen him on campus.

So I asked: "Excuse me, do you teach at the University of Hawaii?"

"No!" the man all but shouted. He wasn't smiling, either. Anything but.

Oh well. Some time into the flight I remembered that I'd seen the man's face not in person but on TV. He was the new chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party, and some of the media coverage had focused on his background. In a heavily Democratic state with a strong union presence, the new Republican chairman was a "labor consultant" -- that is, a professional union buster.

Meanwhile, my free headset didn't work, and the flight attendant was on the speaker, apologizing. The sound system wasn't working in the center seats, she announced. In that section, headset rental money would be refunded at the end of the flight.

The Republican chairman handed his headset across the aisle to his wife. There in her starboard section the sound did work, and she listened all the way from Illinois to Hawaii.

Then, as the airplane was on final approach to HNL, she handed the headset back to her husband. The flight attendant came down the aisle, reclaiming headsets and making refunds.

And he took the money.

Maybe I would have done the same. I don't suppose all Democrats are more virtuous than all Republicans. But I still remember that particular Republican's entitled scowl.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

We're past Jon Stewart. We need a Swift.

Economic news from a Wisconsin teacher:

And some related literature:,19188/

Danse macabre, pas de six;

or, how we learn to perform the deadly body language of economics.

Salem, Massachusetts, ca. 1906:
"Boston and Maine Railroad depot, Riley Plaza"
Click to enlarge.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

New chapbook

On the Issuu shelf at the bottom of the screen, you should now see a link to my latest (January-February 2011 only) photo chapbook, "in silence." For me, the "Click to read in full screen" command works only with Internet Explorer, not Firefox or Chrome.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

For Sir Thomas Wyatt

Then shalt thou know beauty but lent,
And wish and want as I have done. 

Click to enlarge.

Monday, February 14, 2011



Vintage Automobile Ads & Posters
ed. Carol Belanger Grafton. Image 056.
Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010.
Click to enlarge.

In its forest, the limousine is an unmoving primeval whiteness. Adam and Eve have been here all along in the background, and there is no road for the machine to have arrived on. The only motion in this world comes from quick nervous hatchings of black and dark green laid down on the canvas as if God were Paul Cézanne. If Adam and Eve ever step into the Voisin's white cabin, they will blush and change and begin speaking. They will have become a dictionary containing only the word "connoisseur." If you have the godlike power to have purchased me, says the Voisin to us who stare from outside the forest, you don't just recognize Cézanne's oeuvre; you are a part of Cézanne's oeuvre. If you can purchase me, you are a museum and a scripture.


Jacques Henri Lartigue, Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, 1911.
Great Photographs from Daguerre to the Great Depression,
image 106. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2008

The woman is a tilted cylinder bustling through space and transmuting it to time. She is the force that tilts the plane across which her dogs and somebody's car and somebody else's carriage go sliding as if gravity had been pulled out from under them. Floating her upward until she bumps into the top of the image frame, it's her hat that makes the magic. For fun, she borrowed it from Hermes.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


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Pour Magritte

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Saturday, February 12, 2011


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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Emily Dickinson, non-Spanish photographer

Better than most artists of the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson understood the daring of surrender to somebody else’s way of seeing. When her correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson asked for her photograph, she replied:

Could you believe me -- without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur -- and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves -- Would this do just as well?

In the era before color film, that must have done wonderfully. And Dickinson went on, generalizing and theorizing her refusal of dead representation in favor of the tints and pulses of life.

It often alarms Father -- He says Death might occur, and he has Molds of all the rest -- but has no Mold of me, but I noticed the Quick wore off those things, in a few days, and forestall the dishonor -- You will think no caprice of me --  (Letters, no. 268 [July 1862])

But in 2010, David Cody discovered something about this passage that must have disconcerted Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Dickinson's passage of self-description, with all its bright color and happy play, is in fact paraphrased, all but plagiarized, from the work of a novelist that Dickinson knew Higginson knew: Higginson's own protégée Harriet Prescott Spofford. For all we know, Dickinson may have meant the gesture as a bit of coy knowingness, a way of assuring a prominent man of letters that he could trust her not to embarrass him.

Trying to read at that level, we're disconcerted in a different way. Higginson may or may not have understood Dickinson's code of hints and allusions, but a century and a half later we can only read mute and open-mouthed in the unknowable anthropology of the dead. But we can't help reading according to other anthropologies as well -- for instance, the anthropology of Spanish photography that Gertrude Stein learned from Pablo Picasso.

Picasso at this period often used to say that Spaniards cannot recognise people from their photographs. So the photographers made two photographs, a man with a beard and a man smooth shaven and when the men left home to do their military service they sent one of these two types of photographs to their family and the family always found it very resembling.  (14)

To the soldiers' artless families, a photograph wasn't a depiction; it was a representation by fiat. Because it was a photograph, it was taken to represent whatever it is that photographs represent. The families didn't think they needed to look at it; all that was required, they thought, was to know that it was a photograph and therefore just like every other photograph. For Picasso, the struggle was to break away from that categorical way of seeing and realize on canvas that (as Stein put it in a magnificent tautology), "One sees what one sees" (15).

With a photograph the learning can probably come easily; with a painting, an image that's more intimately a part of the artist's invisible secret self, it will probably come harder. But when the fiat representation is a corpus of words, communicating itself simultaneously in and through and as words . . . ?

Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1862 wasn't the first person before whom Dickinson opened that abyss, either. As Marianne Noble discovered in 2000, one of Dickinson's most searingly passionate letters -- letter 93 from June 1852, the so-called "man of noon" letter to her future sister-in-law about the death-dealing joys of marital love -- is yet another paraphrase. It comes from one of the sentimental novels that the two 21-year-olds liked to share. They didn't need to articulate anything we might think of as personal, those two -- not when they had a Hallmark book handy to open the chocolate box of emotion for them. So when I read David Cody's article, it reopened a question that had been puzzling me for years: what in the world went wrong when Dickinson wrote letter 179, and could it be that it was one more fiction?

Written to Dickinson's friend Elizabeth Holland on March 18, 1855, this letter ostensibly describes the three weeks that Dickinson spent in Washington while her father was finishing his single term in the House of Representatives. I say "ostensibly" because in fact only a single paragraph is geographically specific below the level of a municipality's name (Washington, Springfield), and that paragraph --

well, here it is, in its entirety.

I will not tell you what I saw -- the elegance, the grandeur; you will not care to know the value of the diamonds my Lord and Lady wore, but if you haven't been to the sweet Mount Vernon, then I will tell you how on one soft spring day we glided down the Potomac in a painted boat, and jumped upon the shore -- how hand in hand we stole along up a tangled pathway till we reached the tomb of General George Washington, how we paused beside it, and no one spoke a word, then hand in hand, walked on again, not less wise or sad for that marble story; how we went within the door -- raised the latch he lifted when he last went home -– thank the Ones in Light that he's since passed in through a brighter wicket! Oh, I could spend a long day, if it did not weary you, telling of Mount Vernon -- and I will sometime if we live and meet again, and God grant we shall!

About this letter, Alfred Habegger's judgment is representative of the Dickinson specialists' consensus: "Making allowance for the simple tone she often took with the Hollands, it is dismaying to reflect that this unobserving and insipid prose issued from the pen of a great poet" (329). Yes, there are some familiar Dickinson tropes here, notably the withdrawal from communication disguised as an expression of solicitude ("if it did not weary you"). Betsy Erkkila has also read the paragraph as a political statement: "a version of national pastoral" (135). But what about the city, what about Mount Vernon? What about Emily Dickinson's language?

In Washington, most of Dickinson's walks, perhaps all, had been confined to the hallways of her hotel (Habegger 329). Within a year of the trip, her reclusiveness had become capable of inflicting traumatic distress.
So (it occurred to me) what if Dickinson's Mount Vernon letter is unobserving because it's really a Spanish photograph? What if Emily didn't take the trip to Mount Vernon at all but remained in the hotel and then wrote her letter as a work of fiction, basing it on (say) a guidebook?

The hypothesis isn't provable, of course. It occurred to me many years ago, and I've never been able to do anything with it. Now, however, technology has caught up, and on a rainy Sunday afternoon I sat down in front of my computer, let myself into Google Books, and began reading Washington guidebooks from the 1850s. By the end of the afternoon, I'd laid my suspicion of Dickinson in 1855 to rest.

The history behind her letter turns out to have been simple. By 1855, Mount Vernon was dilapidated, with the summer house and slave quarters in ruins and the main building's piazza propped up with ships' masts. Inside, most of its rooms were empty, and one of them had had to be shut because tourists kept chipping pieces out of its marble fireplace. From the house, a rotting plank walkway led to the tomb of George and Martha Washington, but (then as now) that consisted only of a little brick mausoleum with the two sarcophagi visible through a locked iron gate. "The interior of this chamber is plastered, and the plaster is falling down in pieces," noted the English traveler William Ferguson (174). "Decay everywhere. It is festooned inside with hornet's nests, and swallows have also built in it abundantly. Placards are stuck up all round requesting visitors not to break the trees."

Amid the desolation, all an American tourist could do was wax patriotic, and this the contemporary American writers of guidebooks proceeded to do. "The garden is very large and seems in fine order," reported the New York Times's Minnie Myrtle, "but other parts of the grounds look sadly neglected." Having conceded the point, Minnie then gratefully changed the subject and concluded:

That Washington was perfect, I am not at all anxious to prove, but I wish to believe, and wish all the sons and daughters of America to believe, that he was free from every stain of immorality, as he certainly was.

But the British writers were less diplomatic. "By the end of half an hour," wrote William Ferguson at the end of a five-page tirade against slovenly slaves and a slovenly Mr. Washington, the current proprietor, "we were glad to be off. We came with veneration strongly excited. Disgust took its place; and we left, breathing hard words in reference to the present state of matters at Mount Vernon" (175).

And Emily Dickinson, travel writer? This evening, letter 179 looks to me like nothing more suspicious than a well-mannered attempt to say nice things about what must have been a disappointment. The great writer couldn't say anything more because there was nothing more to say.

But on a blog I can add one more thing: I couldn't have allayed my suspicion without Google Books. Without it, learning what I learned in a single afternoon would have cost me weeks or months of library and interlibrary work, and perhaps a special trip to the Library of Congress. Inside the new medium, however, I and some books were equalized in the part of the electromagnetic spectrum which is shared out between a computer's scanning range and a person's reading range. It's not that the sharing is a gesture in the direction of democratic reading; it's just that to a computer all data are equally part of a Spanish photograph, equally available to all forms of data processing. To the fastidiously withdrawn Emily Dickinson, however, they weren't. She did her best to fit her reading of Mount Vernon into Minnie Myrtle's American generic form, but she was too honest a viewer of the world ("One sees what one sees") to be able to succeed.

And as to her mysterious letters collaged out of other people's words -- without recourse to the idea of the Spanish photograph, they're even more mysterious. They play at being Minnie letters, but they don't play by any published rules yet discovered. They're one more reason to keep reading Dickinson, at any frequency the spectrum can offer. Thanks, Google!

Works Cited

Cody, David. "'When one's soul's at a white heat': Emily Dickinson and the 'Azarian School.'" Emily Dickinson Journal 19, no. 1 (2010): 30-59.

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958. Citation by letter number, not page number.

Erkkila, Betsy. "Dickinson and the Art of Politics." A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson, ed. Vivian R. Pollak (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 133-74.

Ferguson, William. America by River and Rail; or, Notes by the Way on the New World and Its People. London: James Nisbet, 1856.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.

Myrtle, Minnie. "Traveling. A Day at Mount Vernon." New York Times 16 May 1855: n.p. Facsimile at

Noble, Marianne. The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Cited in Habegger 277.

Stein, Gertrude. Picasso. 1938. New York: Dover, 1984.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011