Art is a game in the sense that in games, players purposely impose limitations on themselves, rules and boundaries that will make the effort immensely more complex and difficult than it would otherwise have been. For poets, fixed forms or prompts shape the words and even the ideas expressed in the poems in unexpected ways. For photographers like Beth Moon, choosing to use the techniques of 19th century photography seems to have created a similar effect.
On her website, Moon has described the method of making platinum prints, a form she has chosen for many of her photographs. I will not attempt here, with my meager knowledge of the photographic arts, to do justice to the technique, but will say that she has clearly endeavored by choosing this method to apply the same loving attention to an endangered art form that she has to the similarly endangered subjects of so many of her photographs.
An image that might seem merely beautiful in a modern full color photograph of the sort we might see in National Geographic takes on an evocative mystery, a hand-wrought aspect, a step removed from the technological polish modern cameras, with their computerized capacity for automatization, make possible, and this brings the artist back into the picture, reminds us of the work’s shaping, the choice of subject, angle, light that went into making the photograph.
It is quite fitting to remind us of the person behind the image rather than endeavoring to present an objective view of the photographic subject, for without our special effort to preserve the ancient trees and plants that so often appear in Moon’s work and to remind us of the wonder with which we once viewed the world, we might carelessly obliterate all of it without a thought.
To this choosing and making, ekphrastic poets add another layer of art, creating the palimpsest that is an ekphrastic poem. This process is made all the more complex by the fact that some of these photographs are in themselves products of the ekphrastic art, responding to poetry by Rilke (“Rilke’s Bayon”) or Dylan Thomas. All art arises from other art, but in ekphrasis, this process is laid bare in a particularly self-conscious way.
When I posed this challenge to write about the photographs of Beth Moon to poets in the U.S. and elsewhere, I was hoping for works that spoke of the images in a variety of ways, from relatively straight forward homages to the artist that described the images in detail and interpreted them to reflections on the image that orbit the original like planetary satellites.
The tone of such works can also range from breathless wonder to humor or sharp, critical commentary, and the subject matter varies as well. So one sees in this collection detailed discussions of natural history, philosophical reflection, personal memoir, political commentary, and almost anything else one may care to imagine.
The subjects of the photograph are given voice or are addressed, personified. Writers weave narratives around the images, taking up the mysteries each presents, illuminating them, making them into the substance of a companion work. Or they may muse about the subjects featured in the photograph, inquiring as the original works seem to require of us into the significance, presence, and spirit embodied by these ancient trees, carnivorous plants, fowl domestic and wild, what they have to teach us as human beings in a world we have shaped for our own comfort and convenience almost to the point of rendering it uninhabitable.
I have sought to emphasize this range of responses by organizing the collection in such a way that it clusters together poems that respond to the same photographs. I have also grouped the poems according to which book by Moon the works belong in.
I want to thank Beth Moon for making and disseminating these amazing images and also to thank Cordon Potts Gallery in San Francisco for making some of these images that appear here available to us for use in this anthology.
Thanks also go out to Cati Porter and Judy Kronenfeld, at Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry who agreed to host this anthology on their website and also contributed to it themselves. Also thank you Judy and Lavina Blossom for commenting on the draft and on occasional submissions I sent to you.
Of course, I must thank the poets whose work makes up the substance of this collection, which could not exist without them. Thank you so much for taking up the challenge, whether your work made it into the final product or not. All of you inspire me.
-- Robbi Nester