poet exposed cover


How hard it seems, finally, to see another, to apprehend who it is there, and how constantly fragile the whole exchange, even at best. I had been thinking of Robert Burns’ wry emphasis, “to see ourselves as others see us. . .” But that’s not the point here. Nor is Eliot’s: “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet. . .”

There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate. . .

To define a quick context—faces are appearances, the visage, the countenance, the expression of the countenance, the outward aspect, the determined dignity, self-respect, what’s manifest as face value. Face has a function involved with making (jacere) as make-up would testify. It looks like. To make a portrait of that subtle, manipulative occasion is complexly demanding. I’m struck that portrait has a root sense of “to draw forth,” which in turn provokes a sense of “draw” I’d never before thought of. The painter Kitaj called the act of drawing another human being the sum and measure of the art. It is an entirely human one in all respects. No other relation can so define imagination or the power of seeing literally. Photography proves a consummate instance. The old-time portraiture, like that of Bachrach, in the northeast, had the clear purpose of social investment. My Uncle Hap worked for their company in the thirties and contrived to have portraits done of his mother and father. Their faces are backed by some curious indeterminancy of lit cloud or smoke; they look solidly secure, bemusedly accommodating—and are in no way my grandparents. There is certainly nothing wrong with that fact. There are other values at work, and image serves by its contrivance to hoist these two commoners into the apparent ranks of the financially blest. We might have some questions, and I don’t know what they thought of it all. (The same uncle had battered together an extremely tentative “family tree,” which gave us remarkable affiliations—again all bankrupt, in fact.) We did see someone, however, of our relation, in a place we had heard about but never known, and that gave some added dimension to our otherwise mundane lives. Yet the ploy is the same as the undertaker’s exceptional use of rouge, the suit bought just for that final occasion, the hair curled at last. Such “drawing forth” as that can be has little to do with its subjects.

Chris Felver’s concerns are intensely otherwise, and here one sees writers, poets—those most blest by an art but also made most vulnerable. There’s no money in it, like they say, or at best very, very little. And so the casual interest fades. (Had any a lingering doubt concerning Cardenal, to see him so comfortable here must banish it forever.) The photographer is a friend, the faces are remarkably open, and a reflective small grin echoes from page to page. I think it is that, for the most part, all are at home in the world, and this person come to call, with his camera, is there in like manner, equally open. What drama there is is muted, faces are extremely without artifice, look for the most part straight forward. So the man looking at them is by that defined.

W. C. Williams makes clear his anger at the cost of Man Ray’s portrait of him, if flattered, possibly, by the occasion. He looks alert, raw, vulnerable. Without question Man Ray has put him in his place (in contrast with the portrait by Charles Sheeler). Berenice Abbott’s portraits of the same period—of Djuna Barnes or Joyce, for example—show a far more intimate sense of the person sitting there. It isn’t just that she cares, but that she knows, explicitly, where she is and in what relation. She honors the subject with her clarity. Otherwise, a lot can be made of a camera, as a defensive weapon, for instance, or a means to manipulate the look—to divide and conquer, as it were. I can’t think a photograph any less of a determined artifact than a painting, and to say “the camera never lies” is to be complacently ingenuous. Everything lies, with or without art, cameras included.

Therefore I much respect Felver’s own integrity in this work and the commitment shown in the detail and perception his book makes evident. He has given it a significant dimension in the notes and compact poems that accompany each photograph in the person’s own script. These are useful, authenticating signatures, again a substantiation of person—that someone is here, that another bears witness.