Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

On Louise Glück's "Still Life"


Illustration by Jorge Arevalo

















I enjoy reading analyses of photographs. One of my favorites is Louise Glück’s poem “Still Life”:

Father has his arm around Tereze.
She squints. My thumb
is in my mouth: my fifth autumn.
Near the copper beech
the spaniel dozes in the shadows.
Not one of us does not avert his eyes.

Across the lawn, in full sun, my mother
stands behind her camera.

That “Near the copper beech / the spaniel dozes in the shadows” is marvelously fine. Dan Chiasson, in his “Forms of Narrative in the Poetry of Louise Glück” (One Kind of Everything, 2007), says of “Still Life”:

Only the barest descriptive resources are here employed: “objective” adjectives (a “copper” beech, my “fifth” autumn, “full” sun); simple verbs (only “dozes,” the dog’s action, conveys any affect at all); and an emblematic cast and location. That the poem is manifestly a “photograph” seems appropriate enough, given such a style, but the metaphor should be carefully parsed.

By “carefully parsed,” Chiasson means that the distinction between “snapshot” and “photographic portrait” should be kept in mind:

Where the “snapshot” records “fact” (since its subject moves unselfconsciously through the world), the photographic portrait – the sort of photograph that interests Glück – tries (as much as possible given its medium) to erase fact: the family’s ordinary comings and goings are frozen into conventionality, into a pose that is emblematic, but not documentary, of “family.” The irony of any such portrait is that the conventionality of the family pose only heightens and offsets individual affect: the gloating and furtive and distracted looks that might disappear in an idealized portrait painting are here, in a portrait photograph, exaggerated.

In his piece, Chiasson treats “Still Life” as a metaphor for Gluck’s “photographic style.” He says, “As a metaphor for her poetics, then, Gluck’s photographic “Still Life” captures her interest in generic diction, as well as her belief that the personal life is irretrievably conventional, and most conventional precisely where it seems most personal.” But if “Still Life” is a “photograph,” it’s an unusual one in that it includes the photographer (“Across the lawn, in full sun, my mother / stands behind her camera”). I think a more compelling interpretation is that “Still Life” is Glück’s descriptive analysis of a family photo. The first six lines describe the photo; the last two introduce a psychological dimension – the mother, who can't get her family's attention (“Not one of us does not avert his eyes”). Chiasson comes closer to this interpretation in his recent New Yorker piece, “The Body Artist” (November 12, 2012), a review of Gluck’s Poems 1962-2012, in which he again considers “Still Life.” He writes,

This is family life depicted twice: by the mother through her camera, and by Gluck, through this poem. Both “takes” depend on an observer who leaves herself out of the picture: the photograph effaces the mother, since she takes it; the poem, in painstakingly avoiding all commentary, hides its author as best it can, though there she is, sucking her thumb. Gluck seems to revile, though she cannot help resembling, the mother so central to the picture that omits her.

This strikes me as slightly more persuasive than the poem-as-family-portrait reading that Chiasson advances in his earlier piece. It allows for the existence of two “photographs” (one embedded in the other) – the mother’s group shot framed within Glück’s poem, which shows the mother taking the shot. But it still sees “Still Life” as a “take” rather than as an analysis. In “The Body Artist,” Chiasson describes Glück as a “poet of first-person forensics: her autobiography is dissected rather than expressed, almost as though the facts of her life belonged to someone else.” In my opinion, Glück’s great “Still Life” is closer to a forensic report (albeit a brief one) than it is to a photograph.

Credit: The above artwork is by Jorge Arevalo; it appears in The New Yorker (November 12, 2012), as an illustration for Dan Chiasson’s “The Body Artist.”

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