Edward Carson.ca

This Way Out (Three Portraits)

I’m sitting at my desk with three postcard pictures of authors whose work I’ve never tired of reading, authors who in poetry and prose continue to inspire me. Though I’ve read them many times, I keep finding something new at every turn.

Wallace Stevens is sitting at his desk (where else) in his suit (what else) and behind him is a large window through which one can just about make out the face of a snow-covered building directly across from his. Stevens looks to be spotting something just above the left shoulder of the photographer. His right hand is in the middle of pointing in that direction, while the left hand is neatly positioned on the desk in front of him as if he were in school awaiting the teacher’s signal to pick up his pen and begin to write. Perhaps he really is not as uncomfortable as he looks; it’s a black and white photograph, and the aging of the negative has left this image with grainy streaks. Stevens looks like he’s tried to get out of having this picture taken, and probably is already thinking of where else he could possibly be. Like a lot of his poetry, he seems caught in the middle of something that can’t be resolved. All the evidence he might need is right there for him – and he knows it – but he can’t quite seem to discover what it is he wants to find.

In the next postcard Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is caught, mid-stride, walking along the pavement in what looks to be a city setting in a snowstorm. He has no hat on his head, tough his hands are buried deep into the pockets of a heavy, tweed overcoat. There’s not another soul on the street, though in the far background an old Chevy is parked, accumulating a deep covering of snow. It’s another black and white photo. The white of the snow on the ground leaves no markings or outlines, so it makes it seem like Pirsig is floating there, covered from head to toe in the blurred spotting of the snowflakes. He looks like he wants to ask a question, several in fact, which isn’t surprising at all. But he looks like a man comfortable with not knowing, sensing perhaps that the answers are there for him to come upon. He has only to turn the corner to find what he is looking for. You can sort of tell these things . . . just by looking.

Robert Lowell is barely in the next postcard, which is the only one in colour. Positioned far to the left in the photograph, he looks to be just entering or perhaps even backing away from the frame. His eyes are fixed on the other side of a room that is bare except for dozens of photographs filling the walls. In fact, this seems to be more about the images he sees than anything else. In some of the photos months of sunlight has almost completely bleached their colours, and all that can be seen is a telltale hand or arm emerging from a pale background of white and gray particles. In many can be seen the figure of a woman standing in front of what looks to be a garden fence. She is far from graceful, even standing still, and the poses she has struck accentuate this fact. Long, thin arms bow out from her body, waving or reaching toward something out of camera range. In others there is the barest hint of facial detail, with only the broad sloping curve of her nose actually appearing. She looks as if she were in a snowstorm, her cotton short sleeve dress and bare feet materializing out of the snowy grain. It’s clear from the array of pictures that she has been unwell. Newer ones are not faded as badly, but in them it’s obvious that some illness has reduced her to the point that her bones are showing through a thinning film of yellow skin. It’s the same round-faced woman again and again in the photos, and even the same smile is repeated, though her diminishing shape becomes more and more difficult to recognize. The pressure of the illness inside her shows to an exaggerated degree on her face, but the uncanny effect is one of increasing both the intensity and depth of her stare. Lowell, unmoving, nearly out of the picture, looks about to begin something from which he will never escape.

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