Don Bogen’s poem “Winter Photographs” appears in AGNI 95.
I rarely use my reflex camera these days—the one in my cell phone is more convenient—but the hundreds of pictures I can call up on my laptop without having to search among old boxes and yellowed photo albums, including many of my late wife, Cathryn, make me glad I used it extensively for a decade or so. Since they are essentially just pixels, the images on the screen always seem fresh and potentially changeable, although Cathryn’s been gone almost nine years.
Changeability—I love this feature of digital photography. Not only could I frame, focus, and choose the amount of light for what I shot with my Canon EOS Rebel, but when I downloaded the pictures to the computer with the handy little cord, I could alter the images in all kinds of ways. In theory, I had endless time to improve things as I reached toward some impossible photographic ideal. You can’t beat that kind of control.
Wintertime was when I found myself going out often, to take pictures. On cloudless mornings after a snowfall, the light looked rinsed, the shadows preternaturally sharp. As I chose my shots, set the shutter speeds and exposure times, looked at the images, and then selected a few to work on and “improve,” the camera seemed to say, “You’re not just taking photos now but making art.” That flattered my ego (I can’t even draw a good stick figure) and helped me think visually. My shutter had caught a moment in time; my fingers on the keyboard were improving that moment, revising it, and I felt that I was actively creating something. There was a particular sense of discovery at this stage, as I noticed more than I had seen in the original photo: its parallels and contrasts, its abstract patterns and overall tone, its visual meaning and impact.
This two-stage process—the initial shot and the later reprocessing—has parallels with the way I write. It’s always hard for me to get started on a poem, but I love revision. Unlike my friends who think of themselves as “writing poetry” when they work, I operate in the poet-as-maker tradition, with its etymological links back to the Ancient Greek poesis, or making. Revision is the dominant element. I tinker endlessly. To use Solmaz Sharif’s analogy of the fox and the mole in this AGNI Online interview with Roger Reeves, I’m more fox than mole, leaping toward various possibilities for a poem rather than burrowing into a single one. I often wish I could make it through a first draft more easily and just keep going, but after all these years I’m stuck with various depressing analogies for the initial stage: amassing a lump of clay that I’ll then have to chip away at; Yeats’s “stitching and unstitching” to build the illusion of “a moment’s thought”; and—on too many occasions, I hate to admit—beating the proverbial dead horse.
But to ride that last metaphor still further: if the horse shows even the slightest sign of life, I grab at anything to get it moving. Formal elements are especially useful at the revision stage. In “Winter Photographs,” the development of a new form, which I’ve taken to calling the “interlude,” led me to insights I wouldn’t have reached in free verse. Here are the poem’s opening stanzas:
Winters I take a special pleasure
in clear mornings when shadows reach across new snow,
giving the illusion of deliberate arrangement
where there is none and a certain abstract pattern
I think I can control.
I go out to the park and try to capture things—
tiny ridges glinting like crystal, a nest in bare twigs, deer tracks—
and the settings on my camera for focus, aperture, and exposure
function as instruments of control.
The rules of the “interlude” are fairly simple. The form consists of six individual sentences, one per stanza. The first sentence takes up five lines, the second four, the third three, the fourth three lines again, the fifth four, and the sixth five. The six stanzas form a kind of mirror: 5-4-3-3-4-5. The first three of these end with the same word (“control” in this poem), the last three with another word (“death,” here). Each of the two lines in the middle, the twelfth and thirteenth, starts and ends with the same word or phrase, in this case “I can” and “control.”
The interlude form has given me a useful combination of rules and freedom, and the challenge of building long single sentences, especially for the five-line stanzas, has brought out a new voice that has room for evocation, narration, and argument. The symmetrical structure of the interlude seems to complement the elegiac material I’ve been working with over the last several years. The form opens and then closes, and the repeated end words—“control” and “death” in Winter Photographs; “chorus” and “silence,” “time” and “flow” in others—serve to anchor key themes. Some of the interludes I’ve written arise from general memories: our son coming down the stairs as he left for school, my walks with a camera in the park, Cathryn’s sweet alto as she sang in the choir (a confirmed atheist, she’d joined a Unitarian church nearby just for the music). Others explore more specific events, like the night the choir trailed from our doorway, up the stairs, and into our bedroom so that they could sing to her (and with her) a few days before she died.
My friend C. S. Giscombe described the shape of “Winter Photographs” as “breathing in and then out,” and I have to admit that I felt not only relief when I finished the poem but emotional satisfaction. There was a sense of endless possibility in each sentence as I altered words and line breaks, rephrased clauses, and changed the syntax. Time seemed suspended. I had plenty of room to make my experience, as rendered in the poem, specific. But it was when I’d completed a draft of the last stanza, in which the address to my late wife becomes explicit, that I discovered a fundamental flaw in the whole idea of capturing things:
You with the baby, the swirl of your hair as you dozed on the couch,
facets of brown and gray in a strip of bark—
how can I take pleasure in these abstracted images
preserved for a while seemingly outside time,
knowing their context is death?
Yes, I’d described some photos and clarified my thoughts. I liked the voice and the music of the poem. I’d achieved a kind of aesthetic closure within the form. But any pride I could take in all that, it came to me, was not only vain but inaccurate: both in making the photographs and writing about them I’d turned what had existed in the changing world into something considerably more limited.
Limits are what a person who has sustained loss needs to establish. I’d taken the photos of Cathryn and eventually put them in the poem with an eye toward capturing moments of beauty—Cathryn as a young mother in our first flat in Cincinnati, or luxuriantly white-haired and half-awake one afternoon three decades later in Belfast—as if these moments were closed off and hence impervious to the years. But closure implies a finality, an endpoint to a stretch of time, whether it be twenty-four lines or the forty years of a marriage—and that doesn’t fit my experience. For me, a photo doesn’t so much preserve memory as open it to new thoughts each time it is viewed: re-vision in the broadest sense. Cathryn’s physical presence is no longer as it was, but it hasn’t stepped out of time. Some of it was dispersed in air, some may be sinking through silt in a bay, some perhaps drifting still in an underground stream. As for memory, her presence there will go on changing as long as those who think of her remain alive.
As a made thing, “Winter Photographs” comes to a deliberate conclusion, albeit with a question mark. Emotionally, I breathed in and then out as I crafted the interlude’s closed, symmetrical form. But the poem doesn’t stop with its last word. The editors at AGNI worked with me to sharpen the phrasing, and readers who come across it will find their own interpretations of its particular arrangement of words and change it yet again. So perhaps, after all, there is no real closure at the end. The poem stays alive in its own way, and I take delight in that.
Don Bogen is the poetry editor of The Cincinnati Review. He is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Immediate Song (Milkweed Editions, 2019). His collection of poetry, An Algebra, was published by University of Chicago Press in 2009. His work has recently appeared in Copper Nickel, Chicago Quarterly Review, The Yale Review, AGNI, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. He is an emeritus professor at the University of Cincinnati. (updated 4/2022)