with critique by Jendi Reiter
There is a pale, haunting, male face
That gazes at me from a bygone age
Of monochromes; the family album's place
Where my eyes, captured, fix upon that page.
A gray-beard father of some unknown brood,
Among these fellows in their country dress.
Some with their guns, a posse, hunt or feud;
One man among the others, more or less.
No taller surely, and no better dressed,
But there amidst his, animated, kin;
His hollow eyes apart from all the rest,
As if some old sin brought to mind again.
Without the names, the time or circumstance,
I know no faces from these faded prints;
And only that one halts my casual glance,
Returning stare for stare, a certain sense...
That comrades in the picture failed to find
The specter of some future he must see
That they do not; across the gulf of time
He rests his brooding gaze here, now, on me.
How can we know when we are looking out
Into a void our eyes cannot dismiss;
Despite great faith or hope, beyond all doubt,
The shutter snaps, and springs the dark abyss.
Copyright 2007 by Hank Rodgers
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "From the Album" by Hank Rodgers, pulls off three rather difficult tricks in only 24 lines. It is a well-executed formal poem whose syntax and vocabulary nonetheless sound modern; it makes a philosophical argument feel personal, concrete and immediate; and it sends a shiver down the back of my neck.
Rodgers' work (see here for another example) reminds me of the 20th-century British poet Philip Larkin. In poems such as "Church Going" and "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album", he combined nostalgia for traditional forms with a self-lacerating awareness that the old faiths had become exhausted. Rodgers' "From the Album" similarly derives its energy from the conflict between the romantic, backward-looking style of the verse and the speaker's realization that the chasm of mortality is unbridgeable.
Ironically, the only message that the past can exchange with the future is that communication fails. The speaker cannot know what the unnamed man in the picture was thinking, and it seems that his comrades were also a world away from seeing what he saw, despite being nearest to him in space and time. The man's death, which was mystery and anticipation for himself, is a known fact for the speaker; this cannot help but darken and distort his imaginative reconstruction of the man's thoughts.
The photograph, any photograph, contains a paradox. Because on the surface it freezes time, it appears to be a form of immortality. Yet when we, who are still moving forward in time, look back on it, we see that change has occurred, and we remember the moments that will never come again. Reifying the past as a separate world turns it into a thing that can and will be lost, just as the dynamic life in which we are now immersed will someday be reduced to a static image.
"The shutter snaps, and springs the dark abyss." It's said that some Native American tribes believe that taking someone's picture can steal their soul. In "From the Album", being photographed may not literally kill you, but it springs the trap of self-awareness which includes the awareness of death, and that may be worse—the double-edged knowledge that the forbidden apple brought. The subject's haunted face and aura of separation from his comrades lead the speaker to imagine the possibility of a crime, "some old sin brought to mind again," that the passage of time can only bury, not redeem. In its vagueness, it stands in for all the misdeeds we will never have enough time to remedy if this life is all we have.
Rodgers' varied sentence structure is an essential feature that distinguishes well-written formal poems from those that sound sing-song and unnatural. Beginners commonly make the mistake of having the pauses fall at the end of each line or couplet. Rodgers continues sentences across line breaks ("from a bygone age/Of monochromes") and stanza breaks ("a certain sense...That comrades in the picture failed to find"). The resulting voice flows as naturally as a prose paragraph, without being too colloquial for its poetic form.
I would alter certain irregular punctuation that I found distracting: the ellipsis after "sense" in the line just quoted, and the commas around "animated" in the third verse. While slight deviations from exact meter can enhance a formal poem, I think it's unwise to do this in the first line, which needs to set the tempo in an authoritative way. "There is" is also not the strongest phrase with which to begin.
The last line of this poem hits like the crashing final chord of a minor-key symphony. The repeated S sounds create a sinister background hiss, while the plosives P, T and K convey the quick, nasty surprise of a machine that instantaneously severs life from death. It is a fitting end to a profound and disturbing journey.
Where could a poem like "From the Album" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Poetry Society of Virginia Annual Contests
Postmark Deadline: January 19
Prizes up to $300 for unpublished poems with various themes and styles (28 categories)
Academi Cardiff International Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by January 26
National literary society of Wales offers prizes up to 5,000 pounds for unpublished poems; credit card payment accepted for overseas entrants
Kent & Sussex Open Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by January 31
British poetry society offers prizes up to 600 pounds for unpublished poems by authors aged 16+; pay fees in UK currency only
W.B. Yeats Society Annual Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: February 1
$250 award for unpublished poems includes invitation to ceremony at the elegant, prestigious National Arts Club in New York City in April
This poem and critique appeared in the January 2007 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.