Jo Shapcott’s poem “Myself Photographed” begins with an affirmative statement: “So this is me.” This line draws our attention to the subject of the photograph, although it does so with a slightly wry, or perhaps uncertain, tone provided by the word “So.” The next line, “In the field after we got lost,” continues this tone, and from there onwards, the poem reveals a subject uncertain about the self portrayed in the image. For example, Shapcott describes the physical attributes of the person in the image—her eyes are “turned up to the right,” her mouth “is a little open”—as though she was looking at an image of a stranger, not of herself. She is, in essence, objectifying herself, unsure even of her own appearance and the meaning of her facial expressions, an experience common to many people when looking at pictures of themselves from a different time in their life. Likewise, with the slight embarrassment that many of us feel when looking at our own photographs, she writes, “my mouth is a little open. / Perhaps I always look like this. / Perhaps it is an expression of surprise.” The sense of uncertainty is strengthened by the repetition of “perhaps,” and in these lines, we get the impression that the persona is almost asking “Is this me?” instead of stating “This is me.”
Throughout the poem, the persona describes something, only to immediately and hesitantly revise her depiction—”this wrong turning resulted in an oak / (I want to say leaf, leaf),” “high grass (I want / to say hay tickle),” “my dodgy ankle (I want to / say friendly old pain)”—as though she lacks confidence in her authority to recall an experience that she herself has had and which is documented in the photograph. Everything the persona in Shapcott’s poem wants to say is ironically only half said, contained in parentheses. The only constant of that day, it seems, is not “So this is me” but the heat: “O the weather there / which was hot, so hot, so hot, so hot that day.”
However, if we take into consideration some of the biographical background of the poem, we might begin to understand why “Myself Photographed” is composed in this way. The poem is included in Shapcott’s collection Of Mutability, written after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Shapcott survived the disease, and the poems in the collection are all in one way or another a celebration of life. The persona’s hesitancy and revisions in “Myself Photographed” can thus be seen as a confirmation that there is more time left for her to revise, to ponder, to wonder. One is reminded of these lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “And time yet for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions.”
Unlike Shapcott’s poem which depicts a photograph of the self, Wendy Cope’s poem “On Finding an Old Photograph” addresses a photograph from which she is entirely absent. It is a picture of her father taken before she was born. The poem offers a relatively straightforward description of the image in the first two stanzas, giving us the location, the year, a sketch of the people portrayed (although the persona’s father is the only figure identified) and even a sense of the fashion of the time: the stylish trousers, the soft white blouses, the skirts that delicately brush the grass.
The second half of the poem, on the other hand, is saturated with a sense of guilt. Susan Sontag believes that “Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.” Seeing a version of her father in this photograph that is far different than the man she knows, the speaker is “privileged” to see his true likeness: a man who is free, happy, flamboyant, stylish. The final sentence of the poem says it all: “There he is, happy, and I am unborn.” The persona in Cope’s poem realises that her father could have been content, if, as she heartbreakingly suggests, her birth and the responsibilities of fatherhood had not put an end to the happiness immortalised so vividly, so obviously, in the old photograph.
While the two poems discussed above can be appreciated and understood without the presence of their photographic referents, I believe the availability of an inspiring photograph can add an additional layer of interpretation to a poem. Indeed, in some cases, having the chance to see the original photograph may be the only way to fully comprehend the text. Below I am going to share and discuss two such poems and the images that inspired them.
The first, titled “A Trick of the Light,” is a poem I wrote about an old family photograph of my father and his cousins when they were young. Crucially, it was taken just before one of my dad’s cousins was disfigured when tragically struck by lightning. The effect that this event had on her life is the subject of the poem.
A Trick of the Light
That night, lightning knitted her a new face.
When the thunder slapped her ancestral home,
the current traced the floor to her teenage feet.
She was darning socks on the corner chair.
Six days earlier the family photo
had preserved her still pretty face
in one flash. Brothers and sisters wearing
matching pyjamas and borrowed shoes,
posed with red books, which appeared black.
Today, when she looked at her aging siblings
and their offspring, she did not see herself.
She was the constant stranger whose face
did not belong. Their relentless kids
hid and sought in the shadows
of the antique house, while illuminated
pigeons pecked at bread crumbs she left
in the courtyard.
There were rare moments, when the sunlight shone
on the tip of her nose. The only part that
was not utterly changed, they said. In those
seconds, she no longer felt estranged,
as if given back her youth.
The second poem is Ricky de Ungria’s “The Luminous Politics of Travel,” inspired by a photograph of me taken at the Hong Kong pavilion of the 2013 Venice Biennale. I chose this poem because it shows how a photo can take on a different meaning in light of subsequent historical events. The umbrella in the image—which was part of Lee Kit’s installation ‘You (you)’—was intended by the artist as a means of exploring space and the quotidian. For de Ungria, however, it inspired a poetic response to Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement of 2014, a pro-democracy campaign that got its name from the umbrellas protesters used to shield themselves against natural elements, such as the rain and the sun, and from police tear gas.
The Luminous Politics of Travel
She sits on the edge of light
looking away with the ten thousand things
in her mind. This is Venice, 2013.
And the yellow boat across her in the Rio de Miracoli
pinned by the morning rays to its moor
has sped off already to the ponte Santa Maria Nova
trailed by quiet spumes of forking waves.
Behind her in the dark and narrow landing,
a colourful but unused beach umbrella
brought in to measure the distance
between opposite walls, has multiplied
itself already into thousands of hand-
carried and handmade yellow umbrellas in Hong
Kong a year later where it remains unfolded
and is shield and symbol both at once,
sheltering new and hidden suns
with its thousand shades
behind barricades and barbed wires
on unpassable and untrodden roads.
1 December 2014
As de Ungria captures in his poem, the umbrella in the image, like those in Hong Kong, had moved from part of daily life to a political symbol.
If time and history can change our interpretation of a picture, the act of taking a photo can affect how we remember and interpret the events we are capturing. The psychologist Linda Henkel once said, “When people rely on technology to remember for them […], counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves—it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences.” While it is common to argue that when we are taking pictures we are not fully present in the moment, Henkel’s study goes further, arguing that the act of modern photo-taking has become so mindless that we may not even remember the actions we are recording. This condition is closely related to what some psychologists have termed the “photo-taking impairment effect,” which suggests that when we take a photograph of something, we are less likely to remember it than if we had experienced it directly with our own eyes.
Perhaps aware of the effect the camera has on our memory, the photographer Antonio Olmos tries to get his students to become more conscious of what they are recording. “When I do street photography courses,” he says, “I get people to print pictures—often for the first time. The idea is to slow them down, to make them make—not just take—photographs.” Poems that describe photographs serve a similar purpose: to slow things down, to linger on particular moments that are stilled but not dead, to verbalise them and give them new textures and interpretations. Through a translation from a visual representation to a verbal one, photographs are given another lease on life in poetry—often a life much different than the one the photographer thought she was capturing.
The photographer Diane Arbus remarked, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” If this is the case, then a poem about a photograph is a secret about a secret about a secret.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-editor
17 March 2017
NOTE: This was adapted from a talk given at the 54th Silliman University National Writers Workshop and part of this was previously presented at an Eminence – HKBU English Language and Literature Society 1415 Academic Week lecture.