Russet Lawns, and Fallows Gray,
Where the nibling flocks do stray
when I was confirmed in this opinion that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem.”
Then the light comes on.
Some of the photographs in Binh Danh and Robert Schultz’s War Memoranda: Photography, Walt Whitman, and Memorials (Roanoke, Virginia: Taubman Museum of Art, 2019) are what Mr. Schultz calls chlorophyll prints: portraits of Whitman and of Civil War soldiers and their families, merged into images of leaves from trees growing in spaces where Whitman walked: his home, his battlefields. In the blog Lensculture, Schultz explains:
Lately I have traveled there with some regularity to browse the grounds, to look from the high situation of the house across the Rappahannock to the spires of old Fredericksburg, to photograph the catalpas, and, with permission, to pluck a leaf from the trees that have grown from ground soaked by what Whitman called the “butcher’s shambles” of war. I carry the leaf to my car, where I lay it on a felt-covered board, then cover it with a plastic transparency and a sheet of glass. The transparency is printed with a soldier’s portrait…and when I clip these layers together I place the board in the back window of my car where the sun pours down. As I drive home to Roanoke, some three and a half hours away, the leaf will begin to change. Where the transparency is clear the leaf will bleach, and the soldier’s image will appear, embodied in the leaf’s sheltered pigments.
The results look like this,
and in their book each one is provided with a double history: not just a bibliographical citation of the photograph but a genealogy of the tree that bore the leaf: what its species was, where in Whitman’s cosmos it grew. Writing out the details of that genealogy and creating a simulacrum of the leaf’s life, Schultz seems to be channeling Whitman into his own language. He plucks, he carries — those Whitman verbs — and above all he says I. The process of printing occurs in his car as it homes toward his studio while the sun pours down. He feels its heat, and in the studio he will deal in the dark with its light. The words echo Whitman’s poem of death and life When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, while the chlorophyll print process echoes the life-in-death of Song of Myself:
By my life-lumps! becoming already a creator,
Putting myself here and now to the ambush’d womb of the shadows.
Or, to generalize: Danh’s and Schultz’s and Whitman’s biographical plants are arrayed in a human context — Danh’s and Schultz’s and Whitman’s. But if there should exist a natural form coming into being as if it were escaping human context, how would we know it humanly, and how could we speak of it in human language? How, for instance, might we come to terms with this?
It was almost hidden, on a cloudy day, low toward the ground under concealing strata of leaves. If I were to write “I” about the experience of seeing it for the first time, I think I would be trespassing upon a darkness proper to the plant alone: one where I shouldn’t wish to be because I can’t be. This plant is a garden plant not native to the Hawaiian island where I photographed and Photoshopped it, so I am no more a nature photographer than Banh or Schultz is. Still, when I entered the blossom’s light zone I didn’t find myself thinking of my camera or myself. Instead, I found myself thinking of the light before me as if it came from a body different in kind from mine: stranger and, in ways that disturb me when I try to understand them in retrospect, full of different experience.
Whitman doesn’t seem to help; he doesn’t seem able to come naked into the presence of life until he has first taken off the clothes he was born in. But in these different lines from Lycidas you can see Milton revising a standard sunrise term, the glimmering eyelids of the morn, into something less “poetic” but more specifically applicable to his line’s evocation: the opening eyelids of the morn. The line no longer evokes cold cream; it asks us only to remember what it has been to see an eye opening to morning light and a body coming back from dark into the seen. This body has been wardrobeless from the start. What Milton did was to simplify his language until it contained only the essential non-language that came to it not from a lexicon but from a body and a sky.
And simplification (at least this time, for the length of that line) may be enough. A sunrise or a flower, what we come to understand doesn’t need a war or a history or a sense of the human to make it mean. Its language needs only the third person. It doesn’t sing a song, let alone a song of itself. Before my camera came along, this orange and blue and white shape was doing just fine by itself in the dark: a citizen only of silent undergrowth, outgrowing through it from a center filled with something that needn’t after all be spoken of in words, or at least in socially conscious Walt-words. Whatever that was, it seemed, at the moment, to be a private light helping me read the unique language proper to the idea of one.
War Memoranda: the book. Photography, Walt Whitman, and Memorials. https://robertschultz.com/art/war-memoranda-the-book/
W. Scott Olsen, “Joining Wonder” (review of War Memoranda). https://www.lensculture.com/articles/binh-dahn-and-robert-schultz-joining-wonder
The lines quoted from Song of Myself are the last two lines of section 41.
The Trinity College manuscript of Lycidas is online at http://trin-sites-pub.trin.cam.ac.uk/james/viewpage.php?index=1394
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.”
but to my taske. Neptune besids the sway
of every salt flood & each ebbing streame
tooke in by lot twixt high, & neather Jove
imp̳iall rule of all the sea-girt Isles
that like to rich & various gems inlay
the unadorned bosome of ye deepe
wch he to grace his tributarie gods
by course committs to severall goverment
and give them leave to weare their saphire crowns
and weild thire little tridents, but this Isle
the greatest & the best of all the maine
he quarters to his blu-hair’d dieties
Milton, A Mask. Poems, Reproduced in Facsimile from the Manuscript in Trinity College, Cambridge. Menston Ilkley: Scolar Press, 1973. The line through the character p̳ indicates an abbreviation; in this case, an abbreviation of the word “imperial.”
And fast by hanging in a golden Chain
This pendant world, in bigness as a Star
Of smallest Magnitude close by the Moon.
“Docking a Big Liner, S.S. Oceanic,” 1903. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994011034/PP/. Photoshopped.
Paradise Lost II.1051-53.