Seeing & Looking

Saturday, 8 September 2012






What a week, I can’t believe the amount of writing and work I’ve done in the past few days. I’ve been meaning to start writing a lecture all morning, but instead I feel myself wallowing in exhaustion, and reading. On my lap are two books I’ve read before: The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath and The Best American Poetry 2011.

I’ve been dipping back and forth between these two books over my morning rounds of coffee, finding connections and symmetry. I also find myself returning to the section of Plath’s journals where they have inserted many photos of her. Some of these photos I constantly see being circulated on blogs and tumblrs, others are rarer. Looking at Plath’s face is not really an aesthetic or visual exercise for me, but a linguistic and figurative one; I keep searching for signs of her words on her face and body, if that makes sense. It’s a rather clumsy way of putting it, I know, but that’s the best I can do. What’s interesting about photos of her is not whether she was ‘pretty’ or not (whatever that means), but what her face has to say. And that may explain why I’ve ear-marked this particular poem in The Best American Poetry 2011 collection, which is about language, physicality and mortality:


By Jude Nutter

As if language could become solid.

My mother’s sentences become shorter
as her needs grow smaller. And then
shorter still. Stone bridge with a diminishing

span. Become phrases. Become single
words chosen from the rubble inside
her mouth: Bird! Outside! Water.
Please. Tired. Tired. She has grown tired

of language. On her night stand
a tumbler of water on a plastic coaster and the last
book she ever opened in which,
for a year now, a green leather bookmark

has been holding its tongue; in which snowdrifts
on the train lines from Istanbul
have stranded Poirot just beyond Vinkovci
with twelve suspects and clues
appearing one by one—the handkerchief,
the button, the crimson kimono.

To abandon language is to stop
creating a place other than your own life
in which to live. It is to enter
the terrible certainty of the flesh. Even god
is only possible through language
but, still, I declare that it is possible
to transform a body into a temple: look

how our own lungs, unfolded
and smoothed and pressed out flat,
are the size of a spinnaker, could have a sailboat
flying before a strong wind; how they have

the dimensions of a good-sized room, a room
in which my mother might sit,
for a while, before the open window, and so enter
the heft and stance of the outside world.

I have grown used to the seethe
and abrasion of her breathing, truly. Truly.
And this is how I want to leave her, then,
my mother: in a room by an open window, turning

toward the steady compress of light
on the surface of the bay, to a skylark’s rising

smear of music, and to the sleek, white pony
in the wet, roped-off pasture next door
navigating, head down, through the high

surge of wild iris to small islands
of fresh grass; as a woman
who spent the last months of her life with nothing
but rain inside her.

Turning back and forth between images of Plath and this poem makes me go off on a tangent in thought: perhaps what I find fascinating about images of Plath is the knowledge that they come from a time when images of ourselves and the people we love where not as prolific as they are today. We have the ability now to photograph and display every aspect of our lives on a daily basis. There’s great beauty in that, and yet I can’t help feeling fatigue about it all every once in a while. It’s a fatigue that has nothing to do with weariness about appreciating the everyday; I guess it’s more of a fatigue about a lost way of seeing and looking that follows in the trail of an abundance and proliferation of images. I’m not really sure what this all has to do with Nutter’s poem, or the images of Plath I keep staring at this morning, but there you have it. Maybe it’s because this poem is, to me, about a way of seeing and looking, as well as about language; and so are the photographs of Plath.

All images are from this flickr photostream, taken from Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexander. Jude Nutter’s poem was originally published in Sycamore Review.


♥ w o o l f ♥ said...

fortunately, we can turn back to 'good old days', like you describe. it's funny, for i seemed to recognize the pictures, but couldn't exactly place them. and now i realize. i have that unabridged somewhere, in a removal box, for future reference. so nice, being reminded here of what is still to come, in this house.
there's peace here, in your piece. cheers.

Heather said...

That poem is a great find. I love it when two things I'm reading do that thing with each other. Thanks for sharing.

Monika said...

This is a wonderful poem. Thank you for sharing it with me.

I also received a little package from Australia this week...! (It's the Dusty Hour") I really enjoyed it. It is a lovely little piece of moodiness, evocative of so many fleeting thoughts and emotions. Where I live we are transitioning from hot summer to the welcome coolness of fall. As I reread your poem, I was struck by the perfection with which it fits the spirit of my day today. Many thanks.

twinkilingeyes said...

"I keep searching for signs of her words on her face and body"

that's why i keep reading your blog :)

p.s. you are not the only one!

twinkilingeyes said...

"I keep searching for signs of her words on her face and body"

that's why i read your writings :)

p.s. you are not the only one!

Rambling Tart said...

It's interesting to me that you feel exhausted from the proliferation of images, however beautiful they are. I've been feeling much the same way, overwhelmed and saddened. In the abundance of beauty something is lost. My appreciation seems fleeting instead of lingering, and I don't like that one bit. I want to LOVE beauty again. :-) So I'm weaning myself off of looking too much, so that I can see again. :-) Thank you for this. xo

Jen said...

There is certainly something different in the way we look at images today given the proliferation of them as you say. I hadn't noticed before I read this, but there is a need to 'find' something in the older, rarer images that I don't feel when looking at the overwhelming number of current images of people, places, things. There's a mystery in the way some of these older images were taken - the hidden reasons behind them and the lack of posing, that triggers a little lazy part of my brain into imagining the moment they were taken... what else was going on; what else could the image be trying to say?

Gracia said...

So many, many things to ponder on and think about, both your words and that of the poet too... ah! and I've yet to address those Plath photos. Thanks as always for tossing up high this ball of thoughts and ideas about seeing and looking and all else related and otherwise.

"how our own lungs, unfolded
and smoothed and pressed out flat,
are the size of a spinnaker," many pleasing visuals, I'll have to return with sober head.

g xo

Denise | Chez Danisse said...

There will be a day when someone will see the last book I ever opened. A truth that keeps repeating in my mind. I'm not sure what it means to me, besides a feeling of clear sadness. I think I'll let it rest while I read.

Hila said...

Woolf: I don't necessarily think they were 'the good old days', just different. And yes, these photos of Plath are also in the unabridged version of her journals.

Heather: me too, I love it when books 'talk'.

Monika: I'm so glad to hear it arrived safely, thanks for letting me know - and of course, thanks for buying it!

twinklingeyes: thanks :)

Krista: I guess I just feel overwhelmed sometimes with the amount of images I see.

Jen: you've described it well - I do feel lazy looking at pretty images lately, but older photographs, where the purpose and intent of the image isn't so clearly laid out, compel a less lazy response from me.

Gracia: This poem is just full of surprising images, which to me are just as evocative as staring at photographs.

Denise: In my case, it will most probably be the last books, not book - I rarely read one book alone.