Friday, March 22, 2013

`The Everydayness of Life Gets in the Way of the Eternal'

A single pass through the library netted works by two artists, an unlikely pairing, one previously unknown to me – the American photographer George Tice – and another I know only glancingly – the English poet Elizabeth Jennings. All the pictures in George Tice: Urban Landscapes (International Center of Photography, 2002) were taken in his native New Jersey, where Tice was born in Newark in 1938, five years after Philip Roth. He documents the state’s vernacular architecture beginning in the nineteen-sixties – a gas station, a White Castle, a barber shop out of Edward Hopper. He captures scenes that feel like home to me, familiarly American, indelibly of the late twentieth century. Tice indulges in neither nostalgia nor social criticism, temptations that ruin the work of so many technically gifted photographers. Call him a kindly documentarian. In the preface Tice writes: 

“It takes the passage of time before an image of a commonplace subject can be assessed. The great difficulty of what I attempt is seeing beyond the moment; the everydayness of life gets in the way of the eternal. I contemplate how this photograph will be seen in the future when the subject matter no longer endures. Taking a picture is, indeed, stopping the world.” 

Time burnishes the tawdry, even a hamburger joint in Jersey City and a water tower in Rahway. Carcanet in 2012 published the Collected Poems of Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), more than a thousand pages of verse written across more than half a century. It may be the only book ever published with blurbs from both Kingsley Amis and Germaine Greer on the cover. The volume’s editor, Emma Mason, tells us in her preface that Jennings, a serious Roman Catholic, “suffered from physical and emotional ill health” and was derided as Britain’s “bag lady of the sonnets.” Mason comments: 

“…I soon discovered that this bag-lady image was something of a smokescreen for a profoundly devotional, thoughtful and emotionally observant poet, one engaged in exploring love, joy, friendship, loneliness, depression, faith and poetics.” 

Thinking of Tice’s observation that “the everydayness of life gets in the way of the eternal,” yet knowing he goes on shooting the mundane landscapes of New Jersey, I think of these lines from Jennings’ “Art and Time” (Tributes, 1989): 

“And so with poetry,
Past, present, future fashion what we do, 

“Confine our purpose and our artistry.
And yet great verse can signal to us from
A thousand years ago. The art is free 

“Within the length and breadth of time. The poem,
Picture and music can be like the stars
Which flash out to our present through a gloom 

“Of countless light years.”

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