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Thursday, 2 July 2009

Torn from an Old Album



Pale intent wondering little
man with serious fedora
casts short shadow in flat wide
light of his grandfather’s front yard
squinting dutifully into
a doubtful future’s narrowing
eye. Years of rain and snow and sun
rush by, a blinding prospect. Night
falls and everybody dies
back into the faded album
pages, white blurs effacing youth’s high

gloss. Loss, not yet more than a word
for what you simply can’t find – toy,
book, sock – lurks unprepossessing
as among shades huddled ahead,
consciousness emerges: time stuns
it with one blow, stands it back up
so as to knock it down over
again. Still life continues to
play hopefully into the hand
behind the lens, fighting against
blinking; and then the shutter clicks.

File:National Instrument Corp Major (John Kratz).jpg

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) in Algonquin Provincial park, Canada
: photo by Mdf, 2005
MAJOR: National Instrument Corp.: photo by John Kratz, 2007


Billy said...

Tom, this poem exemplifies one of the things I really like about your work; the way the vowel sounds run through the lines (man/casts/shadows/flat/grandfather/... or light/eye/by/blinding/night/... and so on).

Beautifully handled sound patterning, a delicate, robust poet's ear at work. Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

These last three lovely poems all seem to be addressing something that's been on my mind a lot lately and that ExitBb and I were discussing recently: not just the unreliability of memory but the illusion created by photography that we've acvtually 'captured' something of the past.

We both agreed that old photographs made us melancholy and I've been thinking about exactly why that is. It's not the evidence of time past and irretrievable, it's something else, something even more fundamental, I think.

I'm working on a post at the moment trying to articulate what I feel and why but it's not easy, as I'm not quite sure what it is I feel or why I feel it. The fine poems help.

Billy said...

Mish, is it that photography actually demonstrates that we cannot capture the past at all? Sometimes it seems that the impersonal past of "history" is more real than any personal past can ever be.

TC/BTP said...

Very interesting this, I won't reply for Mishari, but I'd guess the answer to Billy's difficult question hangs on what is meant by "real".

So now I know how it is to feel I've met my Maker(s).

Bill, for your earlier comment, thank you. I have always thought it takes an "ear" to hear one, so let us be glad neither of us is completely dead... er, deaf... yet.

(I suppose the shadow/grandfather rhyme is the nut of the poem, in my private way of reading it again just now after reading your keen comment. He was a very large Kerryman who thus cast a proportionate shadow.)

M, again, thanks.

Yes, the photo flashback thing. The horror!

Those old box cameras of the Ike Epoch required slow aiming and thus made for plenty of frowning and squinting when the winter sun hung low shining directly into a stunned child's eyes.

"...I'm not quite sure what it is I feel or why I feel it." I think that may be the place where the elusive "capture" begins. But as you say, this is slippery business. I would want a net with many holes in it, so the catch can keep slipping away. Perhaps this image comes to me because I know you are a trout fisherman.

About "catches" in thought caused by memory... There was once a book by the American poet Robert Duncan called The Years as Catches (written no more than a few miles from here as it happens--this now bankrupt state once had wealth in poetry, among other things).

You know I have participated a bit with you and exitb and others in the memory retrieval game--the most interesting instance at your blog for me was exitb's Atom Heart Mother dream/memory/story. There it was apparent the attempt at capture took work and skill as well as probably a certain amount of happy accident.

Yes, the melancholy of time passing and lost is stamped and steeped in these areas of "catches"... captures and pseudo-captures... we poets may try... and then there's Proust. One page of that and I always feel I'm in the presence of a capturing genius of another order altogether.

Anonymous said...

Simply marvelous. Loved the enjambements and alliterations. The imagery is very neatly managed. I think about this poem read with a British accent and that makes it even more beautiful.

TC said...


Many thanks, your excellent Shakespeare versions at locos por naufragar have shown me you know whereof you speak in these matters.

I too would love to hear this poem read with a British accent, but it would not be mine. The poem is set in Chicago where I spent my childhood, I later had five years at universities in England but since then there have been many other passing places and certainly far too much California, that place where all proper accents go to die.

You've made me think of this exchange (from Valle-Inclán):

MAX: Pero, ciertamente, viene usted de Londres?
DON GAY: Alli estuve dos meses.
DON LATINO: Como queda la familia Real?
DON GAY: No los he visto en el muelle.

TC said...

Some further thoughts on this post and this exchange came after reading a subsequent complementary post by Mishari on Politely Homicidal:

The Sweet Cheat Gone

Reading Mish's piece reinforces the thought, which I mentioned when we discussed this a few nights back, that if it is to learn to unlock the doors to the secrets of the past, it is Proust to whom we would turn as our first guide.

Proust distinguished habitual, intentional "voluntary memory" from the "involuntary memory" which he compared to a deep-sea diver.

Beckett outlined Proust's approach as follows.

"["Voluntary memory"] is the uniform memory of intelligence; and it can be relied upon to reproduce for our gratified inspection those impressions of the past that were consciously and intelligently formed. It has no interest in the mysterious element of inattention that colours our most commonplace experiences. It presents the past in monochrome. The images it chooses are as arbitrary as those chosen by imagination, and are equally remote from reality. Its action has been compared by Proust to that of turning leaves of an album of photographs. The material that it furnishes contains nothing of the past, merely a blurred and uniform projection once removed of the our anxiety and opportunism--that is to say, nothing...

"But involuntary memory is an unruly magician and will not be importuned. It chooses its own time and place for the performance of its miracle. I do not know how often this miracle recurs in Proust. I think twelve or thirteen times...But the first--the famous episode of the madeleine steeped in tea--would justify the assertion that his entire book is a monument to involuntary memory and the epic of its action. The whole of Proust's world comes out of a teacup..."

Some ancient photographs recovered after my mother's death stirred great curiosity, causing me to realize how little I truly remembered of the past and how much--the overwhelming undiscovered part--was simply dark country to me. In a way something like that described by Mishari in his essay, the photo evidence was so limited and incomplete as to frustrate rather than satisfy the desire to know. But out of looking at the photos came wandering reveries, and out of those came the poems.

The two poems that came in this way from those old photos were Torn from an Old Album and Boy. A third in the group was a poem that became Mementos, a meditation upon the small sad trove of keepsakes and knick-knacks which was all that had finally remained of my parents' lives.

Mariana Soffer said...

I am a fan of photography did I told you so? My favourite from here is juan travnik, but I knon many more. I also find photography cameras beautifull, the more old the more pretty the picture will unfold.
Of course you can call me old fashion, but I like analogic, not digital ones.

Lavender said...

Sorry Tom, where I am at, must try not to feel the feelings that these six new posts bring up - but I cant ignore them either. Strong stuff to say the least.
But I can not let the Nuthatch go by without blurting out "Bingo".

TC said...


Yes, we've talked about photography and we've traded Travnik links here. Your good eye has been in the back of my mind (if such a thing is possible!) in recent photo searching.

Those lovely old box cameras look so curious now, like mouse-houses without doors. I must confess they were the last kind I actually felt comfortable with. After a long period of coveting a digital camera so I could take my own pictures for the blog and not have to presume so much on the generosity of kind photo sharers, I finally procured a second hand digital, took a picture of one our cats and in the course of attempting to load it into the computer, broke the modem, no internet for a while, a step not forward but back in technology... toward the Stone Age, where I suppose I'd have felt right at home.

Now if I could take pictures as good as Lavender's...


My thoughts are with you, the Nuthatch was for you, and I know what you mean about the darkish tone of these recent posts and the not-so-good timing for you. I was probably going through a bad patch when I put them up. That or just being a bit of a bore, not unprecedented. From here on out, I promise nothing but uplift hereabouts, or anyway hopeful temporary attempts at same.

(BTW I spent some time wondering how the Nuthatch manages that upside-down perching with such apparent ease--really it's only the snow on the other side of the branch that lets us know the image hasn't merely been turned upside down--and was interested to learn that yes, it's apparently the only bird that can do that trick.)

Lavender said...

Indeed they are amazing little things those talented Nuthatches...just popping in to say dont you dare moderate your content to suit anyone else - only yourself, Meow!

TC said...

Thank you dear L.--you remind me that here at the beyond the pale encampment the several resident cats share one common trait, they all steadfastly refuse to moderate their content for anybody.

'Twould be fun to have a wee garden full of Nuthatches perching upside down, just out of paw-swipe range.