Catch Light Sarah O’Brien. Coffee House Press. 116 pp, $16.00.
Sarah O’Brien’s debut book, the National Poetry Series–winning Catch Light, takes photography as its ostensible subject and vocabulary. Photography, importantly, and not photographs—these are generally not ekphrastic works, and the one that seems most like a description of an actual photo, “A Salgado Photograph,” is, for my money, among the least interesting offerings in this otherwise wonderful book. No, if these poems are about photography, they are about its process, its way of seeing, and how it provides us with the metaphors with which to frame our perceptions. As such, the poems back away from any pat imagism and hurl us into a much more complex and beautiful world, one where the boundary between immanent materiality and transcendent ineffability is blurred beyond recognition. Ultimately, the book amounts to an extended meditation on the power of art, in both its literary and its visual species, and does so with great intelligence and what, in contrast to the book’s often-scientific bent, might be called warmth.
Using “hurled” to describe the experience of reading Catch Light perhaps connotes too strong—too heavy, too strong-armed—an effect. In these poems O’Brien achieves a voice capacious enough to handle varied registers, including the aesthetic and scientific registers at the heart of the photographic lexicon, while balancing that capaciousness with a peculiar and subtle kind of precision—crystalline, but not brittle; fluid, but not loose. Like the light that the poet tells us “gets in everywhere,” O’Brien’s poetry reminds one of Heraclitus’s famous elucidation of change (or history, or time) as the impossibility of stepping in the same river twice. It’s an idea the poet at times takes up directly:
The hand writes a name on the river. What the river cannot hold:
but it is holding light, holding
the tremor of a fingertip, loose and moving. There is a woman
who writes this same name on the river every morning.
Her god lives in the river and this prayer, a kind
of touch disturbs
in the photograph once
you’re told it’s a name, you read it, you can read the water now
finger trailing ink and continuing follows
This poem appears in “Captions” (the third of seven series in the book), a series in which the text, like a caption, appears below a photograph—though in this case, each of the boxes where a photograph normally would have been placed is left blank. In contrast to similar projects such as Forrest Gander’s “Late Summer Series”—poems that appeared in Eye Against Eye alongside the Sally Mann photographs that inspired them—here we are deprived of the pictorial original. O’Brien, in an interview included in the publicity materials sent by the publisher, says that she wanted to point out “that poetry allows us to create our own mental photographs, which can shift and shudder with each new reading.” While noting that these poems do reward—and reward again—their re-readings, what I think is more interesting is how the poems, in this series and throughout the book, go beyond the subject-object dichotomy and into the strange space between the viewer and the object, the caption and the picture, the reader and the poem, and how what goes on in that gap—as in quantum physics, where the very act of observation changes what is observed—is a kind of co-creation of the world. To quote one of the book’s epigraphs, taken from an Indonesian tour brochure: “The Beauty of an Object Lies in the Beautiful Heart.” This surely must be an answer—in response to Auden’s line in his Yeats elegy—to what poetry “makes happen.”
Poetry in this sense is both an embodiment of and a prompting to an active attention to the world, and this idea is reflected in two of Catch Light‘s sets of image motifs. The first is at times reminiscent of Frazer’s notion of imitative magic in The Golden Bough, the ancient belief that, essentially, human attention to the world (in Frazer’s case, the form of ritual) was integral to the world’s functioning. In O’Brien’s work, art, as the human technology of attention, still revels in the truth that lies within that idea, and evokes its uncanniness even in the context of its (functional) failure, as in this passage from “Light Matters”:
One girl I know
made shadow puppets in front of a projector all winter
of the birds coming back, slept
silhouetted against the screen, fingers splaying into trees.
The other set of motifs involves the way photography, in its image-making capacity, both aestheticizes the real and provides the metaphors that frame even our non-photographic perceptions. Poetry in this case becomes what lays bare the way that photography—or in this case, cinemaÔdoes that framing: “The memory was hinged on / light matters. The way it hit your face // made me think of instances / in cinema” (“Light Matters”).
Both of these sets of motifs frame the ineffable as what occurs when the shutter clicks, what we miss during the lapses that occur in the split second it takes light to reach the eye, and then again in the time it takes that light to travel the nervous system as perception. The other of the book’s epigraphs, from W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, tells of a man who had “become a kind of photographic plate, which was apparent in the fact . . that the man’s face and hands turned blue in strong light, or, as one might say, developed.” Or, as O’Brien puts it in “Light Matters,”
it is not opaque—the hand—it is not impervious to a beam. The density of light is a lumen, the density of a hand is a lantern
At its loveliest, Catch Light manages to bring this sense of the mystery of selfhood—of “developing,” of being permeated by light like a lantern—to the fore, and do so in the more or less objective context of the anatomical and photographic, as in “Profile for a Face in Passing,” from the series “Cloud & Bulb”:
Compendium: the bird is in the eyeball. Reflected.
only chance at flight. Many ways of saying:
this is the last look from the last face on earth
imagine slipping it off
imagine there is something more intrinsic than the eyes,
their luminous spoor.
As a book-length project, Catch Light achieves a unity and a formal variedness that also characterizes recent works such as Barbara Jane Reyes’s Poeta en San Francisco and Julie Carr’s Mead: An Epithalamion, and in its employment of serial form and research, the book is clearly a descendent of Cole Swenson’s oeuvre (in fact, O’Brien studied with Swenson at Iowa). But the cohesion of O’Brien’s book comes less from the object of the research than in what seems to lie behind the language—in what I’ve tried to describe here, and what the poet again and again describes as an “untuned shift”—”[w]here the lightbulb bursts” and “the whole world / drips undefined.” That is, the heart of the book is the uncanniness of why there’s something rather than nothing, and why that something gives way to nothing so quickly.
In the book’s most poignant moments, O’Brien makes this uncanniness the basis for human connection and empathy, a basis that recognizes, like the serial poem itself, both the discrete and the collective, the personal and the interpersonal. “There must be distance, he said, / for the thing to be seen,” she writes in the last section of “Five Eyes.” “So I hold you out from me and say now— / let me look at you.” In the end, this is a beautiful book whose making-strange lies less in its linguistic experimentation (though there is that, too) than in reminding us how strange it is to be in the world at all.
Andy Frazee’s book reviews and criticism appear in the Boston Review, Jacket, Verse, and elsewhere. His chapbook of poetry, That the World Should Never Again Be Destroyed by Flood, is forthcoming from New American Press. He lives in Athens, Georgia.
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