Po Em

On the day Fort Sumter surrendered to its rebel siege, a photographer in Massachusetts published a poem.

Fall River Daily Evening News, April 13, 1861, page 1

The poem declares itself to be about creating memory in the face of death. Its words are selfless, or all but. It asks its readers for parts only, not labor. Knowing in retrospect what was about to happen off the page, we can almost laugh at it. Its black-and-white language, with its rote patriotic tags and its unimaginative mercantile underestimates (“a thousand traitors’ hearts”), is about to become an expository prose in blood-red, but as of the first day of the change its wordy surface appearance is still a poem. In inverted syntax, because that’s how poems are, it still asks us to believe that the image of a living man shortly to be dead can be “to nature sure.”

But after all, G. M. Carlisle wasn’t in the business of using language for the purpose of belief, or any purpose. Whether or not he knew, his only business with language was creation itself. See how he used creation’s inventory.

Undated; private collection. https://www.europeana.eu/en/item/2058401/_providedCHO_f0cc6f48_215d_6b6d_3bc3_9cf5aac36364

Removed from their printer’s cases and reassembled, hard images of letters and a flag were made into a line exemplifying brokenness, and then the part of the line that performed a broken word, “Art . .ists,” was made to wrap itself around the Union flag and be drawn back together by it. The purport is, Let that be an example to you. The monition works, too. Thanks to it, you are strong enough once more to face your own brokennesses, and now it can turn out that among those even the broken crayons made their colors a part of you. They did picture your desires. They broke when you tried to communicate fine print with them and write words, but crayon words have been breakable from the creation.


So it isn’t with words that the faithful soldier in the poem by Geo. M. Carlisle pleads with you to catch his fleshless shadow. The words belong to Carlisle’s poem, not Carlisle’s picture. Colored true to life, the picture is a silent waxen image: not articulate flesh but only a flesh-colored idea. But trust the idea, says the shrewd Yankee work of art. In every description of photographic pictures, the true to life doesn’t need to be alive.

Household god dating from the Republican period

“Unidentified soldier in Confederate uniform with bayoneted musket and pistol,” Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2015650755/. Post-processed for contrast and detail. This tinted photograph is an ambrotype — that is, it is generically a low-contrast mirror image.

Content though blind, had I no better guide

In the Library of Congress’s William A. Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs, the carte de visite print is labeled on the reverse in what looks like twentieth-century penmanship:


At the time when this image was formed, “contraband” was the ordinary colloquial term for a slave who had escaped through the lines to the Union forces and at least a hope of freedom. Lexicographically considered, it’s a nonce-word. Everywhere else in the dictionary, “contraband” refers to a thing, not a person, so the penciled markings you’re reading now on a slip of light-sensitized paper amount to a one-word history of American slavery considered as a mercantile institution. Whatever image may be visible when you turn the slip over, it will have no recorded name. It will not be a human image; it will be an image of a thing.

What that thing-named-contraband is, what it has, is something that a photographer somewhere, some time between 1862 and 1865, considered worth his while to transport into a studio for posterity to look at. Perhaps it was the looped and windowed raggedness. At any rate, the looped and windowed raggedness is almost the only trace of content that survives in the faded and discolored albumen on the card’s obverse.

But after all there are new ways to see this superannuated image. A single pass through Photoshop restores some of the contrast between the man and his impassive architectural setting, for example. The splendor of his image’s gilded double margin shines again as well. On our side of the image, at least, some of the light that once transited through a lens on its way to the past seems to have been returned.

It still has no name, but now it seems to promise us the chance to look at it with decent duteous human love. To see it might be a step — perhaps a first step that can’t be followed by a second step, but at least a step — toward perceiving and taking into ourselves an idea of sorrow. Emboldened by that idea, emboldened too by our distance in time from the unquestionably dead-now and copyright-free contraband, we carry his image once again into a photostudio.

Then we close the door on it. Then we feed it into an apparatus running Photoshop, Topaz Adjust, Topaz Detail, Topaz In Focus, Lucis, and a battery of superimposed Nik filters. Then we look.

Once the contraband was led out the door of a studio on a no longer recorded day in the 1860s, his name was lost to history. But a century and a half later, we can at least recover one historical datum that wasn’t recorded then: the contraband had to be led out because he was blind. Once upon a time people could see that. Once upon a time people dressed him in their rags and perhaps spoke his name to him. Now we know again.

Once too, perhaps, people could also read the look on the man’s face. But the lexicon on the back of his image doesn’t seem to be written in that dead language.

Source: Library of Congress, item https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010647919/. The quotation in the subject line is from Milton’s “To Mr. Cyriack Skinner upon His Blindness.”

Theory of laundry: to judge a book by its cover

The book is a ten-page pamphlet by the chief prosecutor of the conspirators in the murder of Abraham Lincoln. The prosecutor, Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, had attempted to prove that President Davis of the Confederacy was aware of the conspiracy, and Davis’s sympathizers responded by attacking him in print. In print, he replied:

Printed in 1866, the paper has gone brown with age. The florid rhetoric looks old as well. Since at least the era of Hemingway, our taste in prose about moral conflict has trended monochrome.

But there were also monochrome effects in 1866. Before, during, and after the black-and-white absolutes of the Civil War, Washington was a Southern town where white was what gentlemen wore in the summer. In the presence of white, both time and the conflict seemed to halt at the wardrobe door. Fashion sometimes looks like a parallel morality, and as of the second half of the nineteenth century one of its commands began, in a body language which seemed to transcend the mortal changeableness of the body: “Thou shalt wear . . .”

Experiment with the command yourself. Think of this photograph of Judge Holt by Mathew Brady’s studio as a frontispiece to the pamphlet. Then ask: after I’ve seen this image of an author’s body in absolute white, will I have any desire to turn the page and read his words’ transient brown? Won’t I lose as much as I gain when I leave the white behind, back there at the innocent beginning where faces are fortunes, books are judged by their covers, and to appear seems to be?

Sources: Holt’s Vindication is online at Archive.org, https://ia600302.us.archive.org/21/items/vindicationofju3693holt/vindicationofju3693holt.pdf.

The photograph of Judge Holt is in the Brady-Handy Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/brhc/item/brh2003001193/PP/. I have photoshopped it.

A historiography of mainstream and margin

In its online record from the Library of Congress, the original stereo pair at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/cwp2003004989/PP/ isn’t very satisfactory as a record in three dimensions. Its two images are differently sized, and they seem to have been taken from too far apart. Worse: most of the history they’re meant to record is in a caption in the margin, and there it communicates little until it’s been augmented by more captioning.

Here’s a mediocre anaglyph of the uncaptioned pair.

Analyzed by your red-and-blue viewer, this image will resolve only into a clichéd nineteenth-century stereoscopic composition, with the illusion of depth communicated by contrast between a merely pictorial detail in the foreground and a subject communicating extra-pictorial significance at some distance behind it. Not much of the extra-pictorial significance will come through, however, because its photographer didn’t anticipate how much of its future history he’d have to document as a viewed object. The glyph’s foreground detail does its cliché chore well enough visually, but historically it’s too prominent to work well with the Library’s caption for the pair, “James River, Virginia. Ships on the [James River].” At that, the craft in the river aren’t technically ships. Less complete but more accurate, and hinting in its incompleteness at a potentially more complete history, is the label on the negative’s original envelope: “Boat on James River.”

Specifically, gunboat. After I supply that three-letter addition to the text, you’ll notice the gun on the boat in the background, and then you’ll notice a second gun (covered) on the boat in the foreground. Oh yes, explains my three-letter augmentation: you’re looking at an image created as part of the Civil War — in the spring of 1865, I’d guess, to judge from the military history I’ve consulted offline and the state of the tree’s foliage online. After that first addition, more become available, and now their source can open into the image itself. Oh yes, says one of the new, image-born corrections: the detail in the foreground shows a man who is black, and furthermore his blackness is no longer just pictorial, no longer merely a contingent detail of the composition. The blackness now takes the form of a living man. This man who is now seen to be black can now be seen to take part in a new, free way in returning spring, and his freedom is owed, as a matter of non-pictorial truth, to the black boats pictured in the stream behind him.

So let me make a compositional correction to this image of a river and its margin, cropping it and adjusting its contrast to make the black ships more prominent by blackness and the black man more prominent by lightness against the black. The moment I do that simple Photoshop thing, the composition too seems to become visible in a new way, as if it has now come to depict both an excerpt from an archival history of the dead and a suspended instant of dance. It shows us a vernal gesture signifying a coming of guns.

Gesture may require a different kind of historiography from the one that generated the static one-liner, “Boat on James River.” The still, moored boats, those “expensive delicate ships,” turn out to be freighted with only one significant detail each: a gun (now obsolete and merely historical) at the prow. But the man and his moving hand are now seen to be reaching outward forever. That which has freed the man is now behind him, and he and we are now companioned together, dancing along one of the margins of time.

The phrase “expensive delicate ship” comes from Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.”

Proscenium, name, sepulcher

At White House Landing on the Pamunkey River in Virginia, at some time during the Overland Campaign of May-June 1864, a load of hay destined for the Union army was unloaded from a barge. Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s photograph of the event, photoshopped below, is in the Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012649517/. A different print, with more information about the photographer and the subject, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art at http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/263051.

The faded original image looks like a well balanced picture, with only a few masses remaining to present to the eye. With its detail restored, however, the image becomes almost histrionically busy. Set off within a proscenium made of trees and unfinished lumber are four vessels, each one bearing a crisply delineated name as it rides the waters of the Pamunkey: steamers New Jersey and Wenonah, barges Corn Exchange and John L. Ristine. Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s long exposure time smoothed the moving water at the base of the setting and fused the men unloading hay from the Corn Exchange into a single industrious blur, but the vessels were heavy enough to hold still and let us read their names forever after.

There, forever after, Wenonah’s name will be seen to be an elegant affair, all serifs and gingerbread work, accessorized with the hay and a gracefully shaped boat and a fluffy puff of steam.

By contrast, the name on the warped and flaking boards of the John L. Ristine has little to say to us. Down there at water level, John L. Ristine is only about hay and self-effacement. For a fraction of a second the name Ristine was visible to the history which also came to include General Grant and his Army of the Potomac, but even then the men who remain in its image were looking not at it but at pretty Wenonah and the army’s hay.

But in the historical continuum there also remains this.

It seems to offer readers of the story of John L. Ristine a chance at an ironic happy ending. Ubi sunt Wenonah and New Jersey and Corn Exchange? Yet here beneath the ground of Philadelphia lies an actuality: that which remains of a name. It remains because it once was attached not just to a boat but to a man. There lie the remains now, anchored by the mass of a stone.

Yet off to the side is a pink heart loaded with words that plead, with an urgent exclamation mark, “Sponsor This Memorial!” The cry seems to insist that the work of inscription is incomplete. The transaction of carrying hay was successfully executed once, and then successfully forgotten. It was recorded in a ledger which there’s no longer a need to read. History has given it its nunc dimittis. But the gravestone still lies unsponsored on the earth. How can we conclude the transaction of reading it when we haven’t been taught how to read?

Ledgerless, wordless, whatever image that might survive of ship carpenter John L. Ristine still waits for a way to speak to us through the picture word “See.” Between a proscenium and a tomb wanders an unremembered name. It was once slapped in paint onto the transom of a barge, but nobody except Timothy H. O’Sullivan learned in time how to read it.