When my mother returned recently from visiting her mother, she brought back two photo albums. The albums are really old – the black paper on which the photographs are mounted has turned a dark grey and where the paper has come loose, the ends have frayed and torn. The mounts have yellowed with age and are brittle. The photographs themselves signify the passage of time more eloquently than the things that hold them in place – nobody is recognisable even though these photographs are of my family. The subjects are as anonymous as any photograph selected at random from an historical archive.
I looked for my grandparents, for my mother, my uncles – and I recognised no one. I wondered if one of those children held in someone’s arms, with a little nose and a tuft of hair visible, was someone I knew only when they were grown up. For all their specificity, photographs are so opaque.
Of his mother’s photograph, Roland Barthes says, in Camera Lucida:
And here the essential question appeared: did I recognise her?
According to these photographs, sometimes I recognised a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead, the movement of her arms, her hands. I never recognised her except in fragments, which is to say that I missed her being, and that therefore I missed her altogether. It was not she, and yet it was no one else. I would have recognised her among thousands of other women, yet I did not “find” her. I recognised her deferentially, not essentially.
If one’s own parent is so hard to recognise, what it is like to recognise oneself in photographs – to identify that image as ‘me’?
A really early photograph taken in a studio when I was three tells me that my forehead looks as it always has done; an expression in one from three years ago makes me squirm and wish that I could tear it up. I have found that the more recent the photograph, the more embarrassed I am by my image – the past is more easily forgiven.
In the digital age, it’s easy to ignore or lose photographs and manufacture an erasure so thorough that it is a way of editing one’s life as one goes along. For every moment that is preserved, so many others are lost.
Other kinds of images are also snapshots of a particular moment – X-rays, ultrasounds – they tell us things about our interior selves. With these images, we are strangers made even stranger to ourselves.
In her poem, "Ultrasound", AE Stallings imagines the child in the womb as a delicate unfurling – a butterfly or a moth; the echolocation of the ultrasound that makes a shadowy, flickering image, the cave of the womb. The short lines – with dashes that trace their lineage to Emily Dickinson – are like heartbeats:
Brain, soul, or both—
Unfurls here, pallid
As a moth?
Mine, and quicker.)
In this cave
What flickers fall,
On the wall?
For those of a newer generation, perhaps the first pictures that exist of themselves is a printout of an ultrasound at eight weeks.
But poets can go even further back than an ultrasound. In Lisel Mueller’s "Beginning with 1914", the poet imagines a portrait of the people who will be her family.
A close-up of a five-year-old
living on turnips. Her older sister,
my not-yet-mother, already
wearing my daughter’s eyes,
is reading a letter as we cut
to a young man with thick glasses
who lies in a trench and writes
a study of Ibsen. I recognize him,
he is going to be my father,
and this is his way of keeping alive.
There are generations tied up in the image of the girl who can’t yet be called "mother" or "grandmother" but will be play those roles.
Poems about photographs make us think of these things: of what we and the people we know used to be, and what they will be. We think of what is just outside the frame, of how the same place has changed over time, in different photographs, as in Natasha Trethewey’s "History Lesson", where a granddaughter stands on the very same beach that her grandmother once stood on, but in very different circumstances.
This is the prompt for the month: find the earliest photograph of yourself (it could be an ultrasound image of your unborn self) and look at it. Do you recognise yourself in it? The place where it is taken? What thoughts go through your mind when you look at it?
Find another, more recent photograph and compare it with the earliest one. How have you changed? What do the photographs tell you about yourself? If these were photographs of complete strangers, what would you think of them?
Write a poem about the earliest photograph you have of yourself. If you lose yourself in descriptions of the photographs, step back and see why you need to describe it at such length. Try writing the poem without using the word "photograph". See how necessary or unnecessary the word is.
Think of the poem as a word portrait of yourself that is both a report of the past and an awareness of the present.
Put the poem away for a day to two and look at it again, as if it were an object, like the photograph. Revise if necessary, because unlike the photograph, you can change the poem now if you want to.
Please keep your poems under 20 lines. Send your poems, written to this month’s prompt, to email@example.com by October 20, 2014.