Tuesday, June 09, 2015

`They Have for Me a Holy Meaning'

Reproduced on the cover of Eric Ormsby’s For a Modest God: New and Selected Poems (Grove Press, 1997) is a photograph by Wright Morris, “Straightback Chair,” taken in Norfolk, Neb., in 1947 and included in the first of Morris’ “photo-text” volumes, The Home Place (1948). The photo, like the scene, is unadorned, a series of interlocking rectangles. The chair is not “folk art” and doesn’t possess the pedigree or clean elegance of a Shaker chair. The wood veneer on the seat has cracked and a piece of it is missing. The chair is factory-made, bought for utility not interior decoration. The same applies to the linoleum. No paintings or photographs hang on the wall. This is the house of a Nebraska farm family, survivors of the Great Depression who possess sufficient money and aesthetic sense to furnish their living space simply and tastefully. 

In his essay “Photography,” collected in Quality, Its Image in the Arts (ed. Louis Kronenberger, Atheneum, 1969), the great photographer Walker Evans writes that Morris’ photo had “imprinted” in it “some of the shoddiness and all the heartbreak of the century . . . a perfect example of photography’s habit, when guided by a master, of picking up searing little spots of realism and of underlining them, quietly, proportionately.”  Evans seriously misreads “Straightback Chair,” a point Morris made in 1975, the year of Evans’ death. In a note collected in Time Pieces: Photographs, Writing, and Memory (Aperture, 1989), Morris says Evans, whom he admired immensely, saw the photographed chair as “expressive of the cruelty of rural environment, its stark shearing off to what is minimally human . . . But to my eye and nature the poignancy of that deprivation is moving and appealing. I love the chair.” 

Because of some overlap in subject matter, Morris is still pigeonholed with the “social realists” and the photographers who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression (among them, Evans, Arthur Rothestein, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee). This is mistaken. Morris’ motivation as a photographer is not documentary in the conventional sense, and he seems never to have confused politics with art. His photographs are deeply personal and “poetic” without being merely pretty. In an interview with Peter C. Bunnell collected in Conversations with Wright Morris (University of Nebraska Press, 1977), Morris talks about the misunderstandings viewers bring to his photographs: 

“The similarity of my subjects—abandoned farms, discarded objects—to those that were taken during the depression, and were specifically taken to make a social comment, distracts many observers from the concealed life of these objects. This other nature is there, but the clichés of hard times, of social unrest, of depression, ruin, and alienation, is the image the observer first receives . . . The social comment may well be intense, but it is indirect, and not my central purpose. These objects, these artifacts, are saturated with emotion, with implications, toward which I am peculiarly responsive. I see many of them as secular icons. They have for me a holy meaning they seek to give out.” 

That some objects come “saturated with emotion” is no surprise to bright children and anyone else who pays attention to the contents of the world. It is, in fact, a common theme in Eric Ormsby’s poems, in which he celebrates “a universe/ Of telescoped similitudes.” Here is the title poem of the collection cited above, “For a Modest God,” first published in the Sept. 20, 1993 issue of The New Yorker: 

“That fresh towels invigorate our cheeks,
That spoons tingle in allotted spots,
That forks melodeon the guested air,
That knives prove benign to fingertips,
That our kitchen have the sweet rasp of harmonicas,
That stately sloshings cadence the dishwasher,
That lobsters be reprieved in all the tanks
And mushrooms fetched from caverns to the light,
And that the oil of gladness glisten down
The chins of matriarchs, anoint the crib;
That there be aprons of capacious cloth
Enveloping the laps of nimble chefs,
That our sauces thicken on the days of fast,
That the hearth cat frisk his whiskers and attend,
That no domestic terror smite our minds,
That midnights be benignant with a god’s
Oven mitts and spatulas and solace-broths: 

“A little god, a little, modest god, a
Godkin in a shriven cupboard, Lares-
Palmable and orderly, presiding
Over the hierarchies of the silverware,
Our platters’ strata, and our serving spoons;
A small, dull god, ignorant of thunder,
Attuned to nothing somberer than the trills
When all our crockery trembles to the fault
Off obscure, dimly rumorous calamities.” 

The catalog of cutlery reminds me of nothing so much as another Morris photograph, “Silverware in Drawer, The Home Place, 1947.”

[Eric Ormsby tells me he originally requested "Silverware in Drawer" for the cover of For a Modest God, but the publisher had other ideas.]

1 comment:

George said...

In A Cloak of Light: Writing My Life, Morris has a fair bit to say about his photography, some of it, as I recall, to the effect of the conversation you quote.