January Elegy #3
Your glasses are folded upside down on the outlet box above the counter in the kitchen. You got them not long before you died. Your eyes were changing from the radiation.
The lenses are smeared with blood I will never wash away, like the blood in between the floorboards of the kitchen; I can see it there still in the cracks. Its gloss has dulled with dust in the months since your blood pooled where you lay unconscious. No one would know, but me, that it’s your blood and not some other filth of daily life that has collected there.
After you died I put your glasses on and the blur of blood and the wrong prescription hurt and I took them off again. It occurs to me that maybe I got the new frames I purchased recently because they look a little like yours. I wanted something different, something a little square, something contrasty where before I had gone for clear and round. Isn’t it enough that I’m living in the husk of your life, grappling with the things you left behind, all of the images you made and took.
When I contemplated the loss of you what made me feel almost frantic was the thought of losing the way you see the world. Your ‘eye’ is how I put it to myself. Maybe it’s what I valued about you most. If you ask me to say what exactly it is, I don’t think I can. I can recognize it. I can almost channel it, or at least mobilize a series of tropes I recognize in your work.
In college we talked about how you can spend a life writing the same poem. There is a metaphysical problem the poet works out over and over in different words, using different metaphors. But the fundamental problem the poet grapples with is the same. When I analyze your images I think you were taking the same few pictures over and over.
In one of these images you are negotiating the relationship between earth and sky. The photograph is about the horizon line and, in a sense, the particular features of the earth and of the sky stop mattering. When Peter and I were curating your prints, we selected a series of these earth / sky images. There was a minimalist beauty to them that was deeply compelling; they were like desert landscapes. The features of earth and features of sky were subtle, like a conversation in visual murmurs. Grouped together and lined up, though, their subtle surface textures of cloud and water and grass harassed by wind felt emptied out and lost focus. You could squint and they all appeared the same, all articulating a border, like Ellsworth Kelly’s red/white paintings but less dynamic because the horizon was always just a line, a line you made straight.
I watched you straighten horizon lines in post-processing over and over and feel some sort of regret because that slant, the tilt of the camera, of your eye, your body, was real and human and specific to the moment and to you. You cropped through the lens and saw through the view finder in a particular way I cherish. No horizon you captured was perfect. To me, that was part of the story – the imperfection of your view. You were attending to something else. I always tried to pull you back from that perfect edge, squared up on the computer screen in digital prints and on the easel of the enlarger. What would Peter and I have seen if you had never corrected what you made when you shot the image? What would Peter and I have thought about those earth / sky images if every one had preserved the slant, the tilt of earth in relation to sky, the tilt of you in relation to earth?
I have a photograph the origins of which I don’t know. I think it may be of my father when he was a child but I’m not sure. And so of course I don’t know who took it. Maybe it was my grandfather. Somehow I don’t imagine it was Granny. Maybe it was my uncle, who is only two years younger than Dad. The child is lying on his back on a leaf-strewn ground that extends to the bottom of the frame. He has his knees to one side, his torso twisted to face up, his hands made into lenses for his eyes, like glasses made of fingers, and he is looking into the canopy of the tree under which he is lying. The horizon is aslant. The leaves closest to the picture-taker appear slightly blurred. There is a sense of motion. There is a sense of connection. The slant of the photographic frame relates to the way the child has modified his view of the world by creating a frame with his fingers. It’s a simple snap. It’s not a simple snap.
The sense of situatedness is captured in that photograph in a way you always tried to excise your viewpoint. Fixing the horizon erased you as an imperfect viewer, a situated viewer with a particular perspective.
That summer I was in Bali and you separated yourself from me and then reached out, you posted images on Instagram that I thought were messages to me – images of the ocean at the Outer Banks when we were there together and the skies were so incredibly dramatic. I commented on the slant of the horizon and sent a response, channeled you when Julian and I went to the ocean so he could take Luting to the sea. In my earth / sky photograph, too, the horizon was aslant.
I wanted that conversation, that call and response, worked out in images rather than words, in the attitude of clouds and hills, the arc of branches, the texture of leaves and stones. I wanted to be in the frame and then to switch places and to photograph you. I wanted to expand into that space of collaboration we found in the studio and in the woods in the presence of a camera. I wanted the camera to make our intimacy possible and bear witness to that new and different love we had only just started to inhabit, finally both at the same time.