Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander by Adam Kirsch

5 Stars

This is one of the most engrossing poetry collections I have read in some time. Engaged in a poetics of identity, Kirsch takes images that are purposefully ambiguous and grounds them into a time, place and character. The premise in and of itself is a fascinating ekphrastic experiment.  As Kirsch explains, Sander’s portraits counter time…by defying it. The subjects of his photographs are not given their real names; we are told nothing about where they were taken or under what circumstances; as for dating, we learn the year, or a range of years, rather than a specific day. The faces in Sander’s portraits drag them back toward the realm of the snapshot, of the memorial, even as everything else tries to fix them in the realm of the document, or of art. But the exact fate of the individual portrayed in the photograph, his or her choices and sufferings, remains a blank….It is this blank that the imagination of the viewer is compelled to try to fill, with hypotheses or narratives — or, in this book, poems.”

The delivery of this book’s imaginings, its poetics of identity narrative, is truly exceptional. The austerity of each image is refined by the language that seeks to express it. Language that attempts to provide individuation to images that were designed to be, in their essence, typified.  Added to this extraction of the individual are the ramifications of the timeframe of all these portraits. These people (some children) were captured in the pre-Nazi era of a Germany on the brink of destruction (and/or rebirth). These poems tell a story about a place and time that became, shortly thereafter, even more regimented and faceless and typified than even these images were designed to be. Kirsch reclaims and repurposes these images into individuals with lives, and fear, and passions, and heartaches, and futures shaded by what was to come.

Published November 17th 2015 by Other Press

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