V. Penelope Pelizzon on Adam Kirsch's Emblems of the Passing World
AUGUST SANDER WAS the twentieth century’s most single-minded photographer. Born to a carpenter in a rural area near Cologne in 1876, he might easily have become one of the laborers he’d later depict. Instead, after being introduced to the camera by a traveling artist, he began his apprenticeship on the project that would occupy much of his life: a vast pictorial archive documenting every niche in his class-stratified society. Shooting tens of thousands of formal portraits of Germans, identifying his subjects only by date and occupation, he spent decades creating People of the Twentieth Century. Sander arranged his portraits into seven groups with headings including “The Farmer,” “The Skilled Tradesman,” The Woman,” and “The Artist.” Yet while the headings imply that social “types” can be visibly organized, no two faces are alike. Each arrests with its intense individuality and the portraits seen together testify to the heterogeniety of German society. Not surprisingly, the Nazis confiscated Sander’s first publication. Many of his other images were destroyed in the war. Nonetheless, when he died, almost two thousand negatives survived, along with his notes. In 2002, a seven-volume edition of his work featuring over 600 portraits was published, followed by major exhibitions. Viewing the photos now, we’re looking into the eyes of the ordinary Germans of the two world wars, Weimar, and the Third Reich.
In his new book, Emblems of the Passing World, Adam Kirsch responds to 46 Sander portraits, which appear face-en-face with each of Kirsch's poems. True to Sander’s historicizing impulse, the photos fix the material details of particular classes in specific moments of a seething century. A pair of shabby “Gasmen” carry their old-fashioned lamp-lighting tools; a wrinkled but proud “Working-class Mother” holds her cream-plump baby to the camera; a “Student of Philosophy” squints from behind round glasses. As Kirsch puts it in his introduction, the photos move us because they show “what is ordinarily hidden from us—the way we ourselves appear, and will appear to posterity, as types, when we stubbornly insist on experiencing ourselves as individuals.” This is rich material, and there are few younger American poets with as strong a feel as Kirsch for the twentieth-century history summoned by these faces. (For evidence of that, check out his essays in Rocket and Lightship, also published in 2015.)
Many of these poems are breathtaking. Loosely following the groupings Sander established, Kirsch opens with eight poems after portraits of working class subjects. When we look at any historical document, we put it on trial: how does the truth it purports to show match what the passage of time reveals? Well, here’s one truth: pink-collar secretarial tasks have always been tedious, regardless of the tools designed to speed them. Writing about the female “Office Worker” of 1928, Kirsch observes how she sits surrounded by an assemblage of obscure equipment whose functions to the viewer of 2016 are “illegible/ As all those emblems that the Renaissance/ Littered its portraits with like business cards.” (Note the skillfully-nested double simile here, apt in this poem about appearances of efficiency.) What remains the same across the decades are the office worker’s duties: “the management/ Of paper and the hurrying of time/ Down the deep hole where all her colleagues went” in their day. A grim enough comment on how often labor wastes lives, indeed. But of course, watching time flee is what we all do, regardless of our occupation. And so, as the Renaissance portrait might include a skull for memento mori, Kirsch concludes with the chastening reminder that that hole is also “where we’ll go, whose labor is the same.”
Kirsch often articulates something latent in a Sander image; he convinces me that he’s seen what the photo is really “about.” Responding to “Fitter” from 1929, Kirsch describes how the blond laborer in an oily coverall shows beauty’s ability to upset social strata. Planted “like a bomb or mine” in the worker, physical beauty gives him an advantage in “the one arena where/ The game’s not rigged in favor of the rich.” The poem’s final lines take on an aphoristic power: “Money won’t buy the privileges which/ The beautiful don’t earn and cannot share.” In another instance, looking at “Widow and Her Sons” from 1921, Kirsch extrapolates the experience of the small boy who “Can’t say for certain if there was a time/ When he was not among the fatherless/ Who make up half his neighborhood.” The subtext Kirsch draws out as the poem continues is that the children have also lost their mother; though she’s physically present, she’s emotionally withdrawn into that anxious land where “A mother’s someone always dressed in black.” And in Kirsch’s hands, the litany of loss doesn’t end there. Given the date of the photo, the mother herself will likely be bereaved as the boys are called up for the next war, when it will be “Her destiny to suffer once again/ Her usurpation by the motherland.” Everything about this Sander photo is particularly intense: the mother’s morose face, the heavily wedding-banded hand with which she clutches the elder son, the memorial flowers in the other hand embracing the smaller boy. To match this visual tension on the syntactic level, Kirsch suspends a single sentence across the poem’s sixteen rhymed pentameter lines.
Sander frames specific historical moments, and in his best poems Kirsch rattles that frame, reminding us that the pathos of a photo is what’s outside it, waiting to alter what the image shows. Writing about the “Village Schoolteacher” of 1921, Kirsch imagines this imperious man with his riding crop not simply bullying his students, but molding them into “what he calls good” citizens, “Which means sly, passive, easy to control.” Kirsch doesn’t state the obvious: this is the citizenry the Third Reich will depend upon. Responding to a “Farm Woman and Her Children” taken sometime between 1920-25, Kirsch observes that the baby’s hand flung out to clutch his mother’s breast foreshadows the “salute/ He will begin to learn at nine or ten.” Most ominously, perhaps, Sander’s “Young Farmers” shows a trio of tough fedora-wearing men with bicycles. Describing the “almost aggressive confidence” that comes with their purchased goods, Kirsch takes a nod from their cinema-gangster hats to speculate about how “tommy guns/ Linger in their imaginations once/ They have returned to tending cows and hens.” It’s 1926. “The future’s theirs. They will not look away.”
For his responses, Kirsch favors a 16-line pentameter stanza, a sort of caudal sonnet most often with an ABAB rhyme. There are exceptions, and some of the best poems vary this music. Notable are the triplets of “Young Farmers,” the couplets of “Matter,” and the ghost-rhymes in the blank verse of the stunning “My Wife in Joy and Sorrow,” a poem thatinterrogates —the word is not too strong—a disturbing photo of Frau Sander holding her newborn twins, one living and one obviously dead. But the caudal sonnets offer an appropriately-condensed space in conversation with the photographs. Their brevity suggests the momentary quality of what’s caught on film, even as their variable rhymes and sentence patterns allow for unexpected divagations. As the portraits lure our eyes into the past through material details -- a fraternity boy’s braided cap and scarred face, the loosely-knotted tie of a clergyman -- Kirsch often lures our ears with layered subordinate clauses. He offers, in effect, a syntax that suggests staring.
Not every poem here thrills. When one falls flat, it’s because it doesn’t go far enough beyond describing what Sander seems to be trying to show, or because it offers too obvious a moral. As a case in point, the poem accompanying “Bricklayer” closes with the remark that its subject, laden with building materials, “Announces the heroic certainty / That he can bear a life of only bearing.” I sympathize with the ennobling instinct, and I agree with Kirsch that Sander valorizes the bricklayer, but it’s too obvious a point to make the poem’s climax. In another instance, Kirsch responds to the photo “Skilled Tradesman and His Wife,” which features a dog wriggling on the eponymous couple’s laps. Both humans are draped with gold watch chains and sit rigidly, while the unchained dog dissolves a blur of comedic motion. But because he’s focused on their clothing and its markers of status, Kirsch ignores the animal’s fidgets to speculate about the “lightless uniform” of the bourgeoisie in which the couple now “must learn to live.” Here Kirsch is being faithful to Sander’s documentary aims rather than to the quirkiness actually captured on film. Is that bad impulse? Not if it leads to a better poem.
But as in any strong poet’s work, the flaws offer object lessons that help clarify why the best poems lift off. When he allows himself more leeway to imagine what Sander only implies, the results are striking. For example, the 1927 “Match-seller” shows a man in his twenties sitting in a doorway with his poor goods for sale. His left arm and legs are twisted enough to suggest that he may depend on others to carry and set him in this position. Sander’s portrait certainly suggests sympathy for the subject. Does it also imply anger at the class structure that leaves a man like this on the street? Kirsch’s poem makes the critique explicit. In a system where no one is destitute as long as a buyer will pay him “to be a slave or orifice,” the poor must “play at the charade/ Of taking part in the economy.” Hence a man is propped up to sell matches for a few cents. Nonetheless, the match-seller is terrifying to those above him on the money ladder because he’s proof of
How easily the petty-bourgeois fall
Into the class they’re brought up to despise –
The honest poor, whose honesty consists
Of reassuring the uneasy rich
They won’t get angry or vote Communist
As long as someone comes to buy a match.
Likewise, while Sander’s title “Working-class Country Children” implies that its subjects might possess the “suntanned vigor” and “gold complexion” of rustic health, Kirsch looks at the picture of four wan siblings and sees lack. Their pinched little faces show that they’ve been nourished on “A vitaminless food,/ And made to stay inside/ Until whatever should/ Have made them golden died.” Formally, the trimeter lines feel stunted, especially in contrast to the pentameters elsewhere.
What genre is this book? By putting his poems so closely into dialogue with Sander’s images, Kirsch is entering the terrain of the photo essay. Other precursors who paired documentary photos with lyrically-inclined texts come to mind: James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Erskine Caldwell’s and Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces, some works of Wright Morris. Anders and Thom Gunns’s collaboration on Positives. Yet Kirsch is far less sentimental than these touchstones, largely because his poems really are meditations on history rather than vehicles for quasi-memoir. His grave formal control is another part of the tonic effect. In some ways, a closer parallel to what Kirsch achieves here can be found in C.D. Wright’s hybrid texts paired with Deborah Luster’s images of Louisiana prisoners in One Big Self. Though utterly different in their musics, Kirsch and Wright are intent on stripping away the nostalgia photography, the art of time, exudes.
Maybe a better answer to the genre question comes from that “after” in Kirsch’s subtitle. This locates us in the realm of translation. Certainly Kirsch’s poems depend on the “originals”; the punch of so many of the book’s couplings derives from hearing how Kirsch has voiced what the image hints. Yet like translated “versions” or “variations,” that “after” implies that the poet’s fidelity will be less to the literal than to essences. We might see Kirsch, then, as August Sander’s ideal translator who, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, finds a way to echo in his own language the reverberations of a work in another medium.
V. PENELOPE PELIZZON's poems have appeared in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, and The Hudson Review. She teaches at the University of Connecticut.