Monday, May 11, 2020

Everything in Motion, Everything at Rest: A Gallery of Photo-Poems John Bradley

Everything in Motion, Everything at Rest: A Gallery of Photo-Poems
John Bradley
Loveland, Ohio: Dos Madres Press, 2020
83 p. ; $18.00
ISBN: 978-1-948017-72-5

Reviewed by David P. Miller

One of the fascinations of ekphrastic poetry – poems that respond to visual artworks, pieces of music, or works in other art forms – is the range of relationships between the poet’s work and the source work. “Ekphrastics” can focus on description, bringing the source before the reader’s eye or ear. They may be vehicles for the poet’s individual responses to the work itself, its sociopolitical background and the like. They may consist almost entirely of narrative/imagistic excursions with little or no explicit reference to the work beyond a mention in title or epigraph. They may act in between any of these categories or go entirely beyond them. The point is that ekphrasis is a varied, even slippery genre.

In Everything in Motion, Everything at Rest, John Bradley explores the multiple possibilities of ekphrastic responses to photography. Organized in four “galleries,” the poems are titled in a consistent form. Photograph title, place, date, and photographer’s name if known appear in that order, as in “Retired Man and His Wife in a Nudist Camp One Morning, Mays Landing, New Jersey, 1963, Diane Arbus.” This neutral frame reinforces the idea of a reader moving from picture to picture, from one wall or gallery to the next.

Many of the photographs are well-known, even infamous, including the subject of the first poem, “Saigon Execution (General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executes a Viet Cong Prisoner, Nguyen Von Lem), Saigon, Vietnam, February 1, 1968, Eddie Adams.” This photograph shows a street shooting, point-blank to the temple. It was one of the most prominent images to inflame the war at home over the United States’ engagement in Vietnam. Bradley’s approach here is a mixture of description, quotations from other texts, and something about the photograph’s impact on the general himself (rather than the prisoner). The poem begins with “Try.  Try not to look away.” – a motto which could serve for much of this collection. The voices, given in italics, include the general’s and photographers’ own words, a sentence from the Geneva Convention, and an anonymous threat:

These guys kill a lot of our people,
the general explains. I think Buddha will forgive me. No
comment from Nguyen Von Lem. No comment from
Buddha. [ … ]
After the war: We know who you are.
Written in a bathroom stall of the general’s pizza parlor.
Two people died in that photo, observes Eddie Adams.
The recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan.

Throughout the volume, Bradley uses italicized quotations to thicken the interplay of voices, given that each of these photographs is already a public entity.

In one instance, the source image is so well-known that the poet’s separate voice drops away altogether: “Jack Ruby Shoots Lee Harvey Oswald, Underground Police Garage, Dallas, Texas, November 24, 1963, Robert Jackson.” This is one the book’s few persona poems, presenting Ruby as stammering, desperate: “Our Jack.  Bits of his brain.  Oh God.  All over Jackie.  And that / cute sonofabitch smirking.  Sometimes only a bullet.  A .38 Colt / Cobra.  Dear America.  What else would you have me do.”

When source photographs are known less well, or hardly at all, the matter of how readers visualize becomes more acute. The title, “Billy the Kid and the Regulators Playing Croquet, Tunstall Ranch, Lincoln County, New Mexico, 1878, Tintype,” suggests the cognitive dissonance a viewer might experience with this image: “Is that you, Billy, darling? Striped sweater. Undertaker hat. / Leaning on a croquet mallet.” The poem steadily questions the reality asserted in the title: “Could this really be / you, darling Billy? On John Tunstall’s land? For Charlie and Manuela’s / wedding? You armed only with croquet mallet.” Similar to how photograph swallowed General Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s life, the camera’s action can’t be undone: “Posing / for the one-eyed monster. Infernal machine: Devourer and preserver / of memory and flesh.”

In contrast, Bradley’s approach to “Bomb Shelter, Garden City, New York, 1955” is almost entirely descriptive. If we’ve forgotten or never seen the image, this gives us what we need. Parents (dressed up for company), daughter, and kitten occupy a space with

[ … ] a flashlight; General Electric Radiation
Monitor; bag of noncombatant gas masks, large; and four books. Hard
bound, in case of turbulence.  Stacked beside an army shovel: bland
cans of spam, Nestle’s Sweet Milk Cocoa, and a boxed cook stove.
No sign of a commode.

This nearly neutral treatment foregrounds the misery that lay right beneath the surface of national prosperity post-WWII and into the 1960s, and that still infects the belief in American “exceptionalism.” The impossibility of actual survival – like the “duck and cover” delusion – is further mocked by the Arthur Crudup song Bradley imagines on the shelter radio: “I’m gonna dig myself a hole, move / my baby down in the ground. You know when I come up, there won’t be / no wars around.”

The Corpse of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Vallegrand, Bolivia, October 10, 1967, Freddy Alborta” evokes a photograph I recall seeing – and which others surely know well – but the poem brought it forward again for me. Bradley brings multiple strategies to the brutality of the image, Guevara’s body on a slab in a hospital’s laundry room, exulted over by members of the Bolivian military. Descriptive elements (“They tilt Che’s head forward / that we might better view his corpse”) make the appearance of analogies to artworks all the more disturbing. It’s as if the assassins were demonstrating their high culture by referencing “Mantegna’s The Dead Christ” or “Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulip” –paintings that feature corpses in similar postures, surrounded by observers. Guevara’s blatant abjection gives way to his murderers’ voices: “Proof: We exterminated. We rid the world of Ernesto ‘Che’ / Guevara. See His cadaver on a concrete laundry slab. Displayed for you / to view. At your convenience.”

Certain photographs require us, if we look, to see something we may wish we hadn’t. Questions arise regarding ethical breaches or invasions of privacy. Several of the poems in this collection approach this question, never with simple answers. In “The Hand, New York, New York, September 11, 2001, Todd Maisel, ” Bradley looks hard at what Maisel saw:

there in the gutter, a human hand, forefinger pointing
directly at him.  He shot what he found: The yellowing wrist.
White bone shank.  Shredded red tissue.  Pebbles, cigarette butts,
a small chunk of Hersey’s milk chocolate nearby.

The image aroused outrage, given the “unwritten agreement” not to display photographs of 9/11 victims. The photographer’s act was condemned as sensational and voyeuristic, but Bradley doesn’t settle for that, emphasizing Maisel’s experience:

Because he’d witnessed
a fire fighter hit and killed by a falling body.  Because in his lungs
he breathed the dust of pulverized flesh.  He took the photo
because one frayed finger pointed directly at him.  Because
the photo says: This is how it was.

As readers, we may or may not wish to entertain this insight into motivation. Regardless, just as one cannot un-see a photograph, it’s impossible to un-read what Bradley provides us.

In sharp contrast is “Emmett Till, Chicago, Illinois, 1955, David Jackson.” It’s well known that Till’s mother insisted on an open casket at her son’s funeral, so people would be forced to look at his mutilated body. “Let all the world see what I’ve seen, Mamie tells the photographer.” Shielding the outside world from brutal evidence may be the obverse of family privacy; Till’s mother, the photograph itself, and the poem combine to make this impossible. But even here, we find the opportunity to look away:

How quickly our gaze shifts from Emmett’s
swollen face to the anonymity of the shrouded body in the back.
To the comfort of an empty corked bottle.  To the solace of a gold
necklace dangling from a wooden peg.

The poems discussed so far may make it seem like this “Gallery of Photo-Poems” consists entirely of difficult, violent imagery. If so, the reviewer’s own fascinations are to blame, because such is not the case. Some of the poems in this ekphrastic gallery respond to non-documentary visual artworks, including “Detail of Tina Modotti in Diego Rivera Mural, Chapingo, Mexico, circa 1926, Tina Modotti,” “Object (Fur-Lined Tea Cup, Saucer, and Spoon), 1936” (picturing a surrealist work by Meret Oppenheim), and “Dali Atomicus, Life Magazine, 1948, Philippe Halsman.” Twentieth-century popular culture appears in poems such as “Mohammed Ali Meets the Beatles, Fifth Street Gym, Miami Beach, Florida, February 18, 1964, Harry Benson” and “Bob Dylan at the Typewriter, The Minnesota Daily, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1959.” The latter, with its triple “Minnesota,” is perhaps my favorite instance of John Bradley’s unvarying treatment of titles. There’s a vintage hoax photograph as well, “Alice and the Fairies, Cottingley, England, 1917, Elsie Wright.”

This collection’s seventy-nine poems provide readers with so means of considering photographs as representations, as works of visual art, as means or honoring or violating their subjects, and/or as pointers to the photographers’ motivations. In consequence, we’re prepared for the final two poems, which stand out by providing barely any image descriptions at all. In “Boy Reading to Elephant, Mexico City, Mexico, 2008, Gregory Colbert,” it seems that only the title provides objective information: a boy reads to an elephant. Here, the speaker enters into a third-person imagining of the child’s experience –

On the shore, the boy gathers word scraps. He builds an elephant
with trees for legs.  He builds a cottage inside the elephant, with a tiny
elephant inside a cage.  He builds a gun, which fires the phrase: I Too
Am a Piece of the Sky.

Finally, one might guess that “The Moon Belongs to the People!!!, Brooklyn, New York, 1971, Stephen Shames,” shows a Boomer countercultural response to the Moon landings. The poem’s opening confirms it while immediately venturing into the interiority of unspecified “those”:

Those who spray the word moon with anonymous black paint
on a faceless brick wall in a shiftless lot say the moon belongs
to the soundless vowel birthed without end.
[ … ]
Those who have seen the moon
impaled by a flag say the moon belongs to those clutching
broom, mop, spatula, potato peeler.

In a Preface, John Bradley points out that the titles provide the information a reader needs to find the images online if needed. It’s a testimony to his power or evocation, and the vitality of his language throughout, that I never felt the need to do so, even for those photographs I have probably never seen.
Everything in Motion, Everything at Rest is an enlivening tour through not only the possibilities of ekphrasis but also our complex responses to visual imagery, whether shatteringly public or bemusingly private. This volume is a remarkable accomplishment.

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