Several weeks ago I discovered a photograph of my mother
sitting in the sun, her face flushed as with achievement or triumph.
The sun was shining. The dogs
were sleeping at her feet where time was also sleeping,
calm and unmoving as in all photographs.
I wiped the dust from my mother’s face.
Indeed, dust covered everything; it seemed to me the persistenthaze of nostalgia that protects all relics of childhood.
In four separate sections, Glück explores the photo: the photo itself, as an object, being used as a bookmark; the scene in the photo; the memories it preserves. The photo has frozen a moment "like an afternoon in Pompeii." I love the complex way this poem looks at a single photograph.
When I look for writing ideas, I often use photos. I started this a few years ago with haiku; I would write a haiku to match a photo that I loved. Sometimes when I'm given a particular topic, I use photos to help me get inspired. An example of that is when I've been asked to speak at an eighth grade graduation; I always start by scrolling back through the dozens and dozens of photos I've taken of the class during their two years with me. Sometimes I take photos specifically so I can write about an experience or a scene; the photo helps me to fix some of the details in my mind.
Photography functions in so many different ways for me. Sometimes I draw closer to an object or a person by taking pictures; I explore its angles and look at it from different points of view. Other times I distance myself from a situation by taking pictures, like the first time my husband drove me around Port-au-Prince six months after the earthquake, when I couldn't bear to look directly at the destruction; the camera mediated it somehow, made it possible to think of myself as a passionless observer. Writing has served all of these functions, too, at various times. I know I distanced myself from the earthquake by writing about it so much; if I could make it into a poem or essay over which I had control, it seemed less likely to bury me in fear and panic. At the same time, by writing about it I examined each element of it and knew it more.
In the poem the photo is of her mother, and there are two children in it. When I look at photos of myself as a child, I'm looking at a mystery. That's me, and yet it's such a long-ago me that I can't really identify myself. I'm wiping the dust away, just as Louise Glück does in the poem. I'm peering into the past to see if that person is someone I recognize at all.
The title of this poem, "A Summer Garden," makes it sound generic, but it's quickly clear that this is a specific summer garden, with a very specific person sitting in it: the poet's mother. I love how specific a photo is. You could search for a stock photo of a tree, for example, but every photo of a tree is of a particular tree. It's a certain kind, in a certain place; it's a certain height and width; it's going through a certain season of the year. Especially if you're the person who took the photograph, you know a whole background to it that keeps it from ever being generic.
This article, "The Version We Remember: On the Truth and Fiction of Photography," has only been open a short time on my desktop; it was fascinating reading because it's about photos and memory, and the way we remember an experience in one way, which may not even be the way it happened.
What about you? How have you used photography in your writing? How is a poem like a photo? How is it different?
Today's line for the Progressive Poem is here.