Chad Parmenter’s Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti was selected by Kathleen Jesme as winner of the Snowbound Chapbook Award (2013), and is forthcoming from Tupelo Press. I am pleased to be able to share five unpublished poems from the manuscript, as well as the wide-ranging discussion Chad and I had about muses, intimacy, the object and the gaze, and the work art does on us even as we make it.
This manuscript has a visceral intelligence and beauty that I love. It also articulates itself in the tensions between intimacy and distance, mystery and projection, memory and desire, image and flesh:
A photograph is not a ghost or past. It is its own. And you are yours now—or only ever were.
As a starting place, would you tell us a little bit about this work and its context for you?
The Weston project started unexpectedly, as I picked up one of his daybooks, or journals, at random at a bookstore, and started flipping through it. His voice really caught me off guard, since it balances this kind of arch speech, technical language, and confessional outpouring in a syntax that seems to both sprawl and halt with its own will–nothing I’d expected from a photographer’s personal writing, and a lot of what I’ve come to love from contemporary poets like Lucie Brock-Broido, Sophie Cabot Black, and Charles Wright. I also read that he had redacted the journals before publication, and the idea of that as a kind of mask-making probably drew me to him as a persona–the Edward Weston in the journals already was one.
I had also spent a lot of time, up to then, thinking and writing around the idea of the male gaze, after taking a class with Ed Brunner that linked examinations of the gaze with poetry, mostly in Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia. I realized that the male gazer, confining the female object of it, has to also be confining himself. He is certainly getting the better end of it, being its agent and the one in power, but self-imprisonment is still imprisonment. I thought about the ways I’ve tended to look at women, that have too often stayed superficial, and how much I’ve lost by that. And Weston, whose nudes were often truncated, leaving the faces of women out of the margins, became a great way of approaching that whole issue.
Oh, and I had also just broken up with a fellow poet, and didn’t know how to think or talk about it, but suspected that I had treated her too much like a muse, and not enough like a person. Weston’s relationship with Tina Modotti became the way to frame it all, since he seemed to see her as less than she was–model, Modern post-goddess, but not the great-spirited artist and revolutionary that she was. But that might not be fair, and the sequence really is about examining my own, broken ways of looking at things, not his.
This is so interesting. I find myself with the sensation of the artist as Rilke’s panther, but also the art itself as the world beyond the bars.
The beloved-as-muse tension is an interesting one, as it does indeed reduce the lover to their functionality for the artist, and is, in the end, a narcissistic way of being in relationship or viewing the world. And yet: we muse, don’t we. Usefully, sometimes. It can be generative, and perhaps generous, even as it’s hazardous. The headless/faceless woman’s body illustrates the problem with it in a very literal way: it’s a cliché of reduction we seem drawn to draw over and over.
So I’m very struck by your saying “the sequence really is about examining my own, broken ways of looking at things, not his” and this idea of self-imprisonment. For me, a central question about most engagements is ‘does this make me/the other/the world bigger or smaller?’ We do have very broken ways of seeing and experiencing, which often shrink possibility rather than expanding it – we can’t help but be broken, in this historic moment, shaped as we are by forces grounded in diminishment.
And yet: the artistic impulse is fundamentally grounded, it seems to me, in our desire to reach beyond that and actually touch/enlarge/communicate/articulate the larger reason or woundedness or vibrant, gorgeous possibility.
These poems immerse in the striving, existential sweet-bitter, as Anne Carson calls it, since English lacks a word that truly encompasses the complex duality implied in the Greek “bittersweet” as it is applied to Eros. You go at this very directly with lines like:
Sex was a lead lens—even for you—or the you my gaze made—there was no looking through. Search under what you want it to be, and there it is—just the shutter of desire, and the vacancy in us, lit up in an instant—an image abandoned as soon as it was had.
Of course, eros is about far more than sex. It is the motivating fire behind all acts of generation, and the primary means by which we thrive in spite of not only thanatos, but failure (of witness, of relationship, of reaching beyond the broken self). In other places in these poems, you open up the larger, more oblique struggle:
Passion as action—written by light like still film is—not as what they call art—no—more its own source. More heart—or its avatar.
I needed you to see through me. And only no one can.
Mask-making, the camera itself as mask (armor?), and who has power at any given moment are also themes animating the work in ways I think we don’t examine much – though we direly need to, since so much of what we experience is filtered through these tactics or realities.
Your comments about the muse make me think in two different directions, and maybe both apply to this project. The first one is the one we’ve been talking about, where the muse is objectified by the artist and easily re-imagined as art object because of it. There’s a kind of absorption promised by that, I think, that has an erotic/romantic part to it–“I’m consumed by you, muse, and so I can leave the world far enough behind to work on this art free of its judgments. Yours are all that matter.” But if the muse is already kind of objectified, then there really is no judgment forthcoming. It’s more a back door into solipsism, maybe.
To jump back to Weston, part of what drew me in to the story of him and Tina Modotti is that they both lived and worked when ideas like the muse were pretty much being discarded, at least by people like them, as far as I know. They were much more culturally canny then that, and, really, I think they earnestly, honestly tried to live up to ideals that were more enlightened. I don’t think Weston set out to objectify anyone, and, in a lot of his photos, he comes across as anything but the be-mused, objectifying photographer. So many of his images, of so many people of either gender, as well as objects and landscapes, have that stark, contrast-based drama that confers a sense of strength on them.
And some of his nudes, especially of Charis, who became his wife after his time in Mexico with Modotti, involve the model gazing directly into the camera. I’m not a scholar of his photos by any means, but it seems like he did more of those, and fewer nudes that were truncated, or in submissive sorts of poses, later in life. But Tina Modotti is depicted some with her eyes closed, some crying, some at angles facing away from the camera if memory serves, and then consistently, for a number of years, in his writing as a more or less voiceless presence. She seems like the muse that anchors the gaze, or did his, for awhile.
She’s the image you are but far more—more star-beautiful—and by that I mean mutable—Maria, Joan in “Passion of Joan of Arc,” scintillant with distance, giant, silent on the screen where I see her, leave her, am free from her. Her tears are not real. Yours were.
Remember you trembling and tender like white light on dark water—in the nest of shed clothes we used as a bed—shaking because of making love. I was making pictures in my mind—“I” is a picture-making of the mind—as far from you as film from the true Joan of Arc.
Look how her tears charge—carve away the dark of her face. Their torture of her makes her eyes shine gray with faith. Look how her power only grows in motion. Remember how you never moved—never moved me.
This view of the muse is linked, but not the same as, the classical one, I think–the muse that speaks, or draws, or writes, through the artist. Instead of providing an external focus for the artist that narrows the world down, and maybe provides an internal compass, this muse uses the artist as a persona, speaking through him or her, drawing some on his or her experience, maybe, but probably mostly those that contribute to the letting go of intellect, and ego, and those sorts of things that get in the spirit’s way. So, Homer asks for the muse to sing, not to help him sing, and lots and lots of other poets have some form of that invocation, somewhere. Milton starts with that, but then uses his elevated state as kind of the grandest of grandstands to complain about his blindness. Shakespeare does something closer to postmodern, at the start of Henry V, where the “O for a muse of fire” comes across more as an acknowledgment that there isn’t one, an “if only there were,” and then the audience is asked to take on that role by imagining a scene that the actions of the play are then imagined in. The muse is whoever the art is aimed at, who helps put the artwork together.
In my own relationships, romantic and otherwise, I’ve tended, too often, to use the other person to displace myself, making his or her issues mine so that mine fade away. I have also tended to treat the other person, especially in romantic relationships, as this object of desire, without depth–“stay in that pose, so I can write about you”–that kind of thing. So both muse views have influenced me, not only negatively, but in a way that the poems help me see with some distance.
Unsent letters as the framework for this book also emphasize the tensions we’ve been talking about.
The project has changed quite a bit over the last several years, but that idea of the unsent letter has stuck, even though it’s seemed pretty sentimental sometimes, and like it might cost the sequence some dramatic tension. It came partly from Stephen Burt’s discussion of the Ovidian epistle, the letter-poem that, for Ovid, became a way of exploring the personae of women wronged by famous men from literature. He talks about it in his wonderful essay on Lucie Brock-Broido’s Master Letters, and suggests that it’s a way to draw language from the speaker, a kind of lyric tension, where the poems become an appeal to a figure who encourages them by staying absent.
That ties in nicely with the idea of the muse-as-object; he/she/it will stay much more of an object if unavailable, able to be reduced to some function of the viewer’s expectations. The muse having an active, living presence can actually be a problem, since it’s tough to idealize someone who won’t sit still for it. So the Weston in my sequence has left Modotti in order to be with her in a way that feels easier, more pure, and more nurturing. And that has been a problem of mine that I had never really linked to the objectification of women until I started reading and thinking about his work. I have tended to treat people’s images, in one form or another, as the versions of them that I could best connect with, I’m afraid, and I’m more afraid that some women in my life have borne the brunt of that.
When I started reading some lyric theory in a wonderful class taught by Alexandra Socarides, especially Virginia Jackson’s Dickinson’s Misery, I started to see how all of this ties in to poetry, too. The lyric speaker can be objectified just like the person addressed by the poem, but that’s something that starts on the page, with the poet writing as if no one is there, and finding some enabling comfort in that. Jackson points out some of the fictions in that, that helped produce the fiction of poet-as-recluse, that in turn helps people to read poems as written to no one in particular, disconnected and therefore conducive to solitude. The unsent letter seemed like a way to draw all of that into the drama of the poems, into what they’re searching for, or pointing to.
And I think there’s sort of a melancholy valence to the poems in this version, that wasn’t there before, brought about by my revising them during a year in northeastern Iowa, a lovely place with lots of nice people, but one where I seemed to connect with people more through technology than face to face. I had live friends, live students, and lots of other people passing through my life, but the ones I love were all Facebook profiles, text messages, and voices on phones. It was lonely, but I discovered that part of me sort of ate that up, in that poet-in-the-garret sort of way, experiencing people as reproductions by machines. And that led me back to Baudrillard and Benjamin talking about technology supplanting reality at that fundamental level (which maybe starts as far back as Ovid, at least, and has that overlap with the divine machinery of the classical muse–the poet connects to it/her, and is spoken through). But being that isolated, I ended up getting to first see, “wow, these people are mediated by machines to me,” then going to “but maybe they always were,” and coming to terms with that, or starting to. That’s what Weston does in the sequence–sees that Modotti isn’t real to him now that she’s gone, and then that she never was to begin with.
Your form—framed by my small hands, that you called “dangerous to know”—looked so like a fever dream of a tree to me. The truth of the universe is ruin—it insists—but out of the ruin the new—your core. I was never there.
I’ve certainly had periods of technologically-mediated relationship as well (for me, most intensely during a year deep inside the Green Mountain National Forest), and mused similarly about it. So many (most?) relationships are mediated – to one degree or another – that way now, and I absolutely recognize real beauty and utility in the purity allowed by epistolary engagement. But for me, that internet-mediated intimacy has come to be something I largely reject as a genuinely life-sustaining thing: it’s a great convenience for communication with far-flung friends, sure, or as a lifeline when in remote woods, but so far slung out of balance with ‘reality’ in 3D for so many of us now that it has become repellant to me except as adjunct to the real substance. A symptom of dis-ease in our culture, as well as an endless problem when it comes time to find people to actually help you move the couch or whatever. But as is so often true of anything internet-related, it’s a strict and perfect metaphor for all that is best and worst in us. It’s also a metaphor for what your chapbook is exploring, for what we do in creation of character or image or art in general, and for all you & I have been talking about here, isn’t it? Because in many ways, we are better at engaging in the context of mediating distance, even as we lose so much of what we (say) we want that way.
We are a peculiar species.
Your year in the Green Mountain National Forest sounds wonderful, and I appreciate how you tied that into our conversation. I love how you describe the letter-centered relationship–“real beauty and utility in the purity” it allows, and also where you find its limits. It can’t sustain life for me either, and I’ve had to outgrow the illusion that it can sustain my writing. I might still be outgrowing it, since my druthers on any given day tend to be having x hours to write all by myself! This chapbook sometimes seems like some form of gelled melancholy, but hopefully it comes across like a letting go of that isolation. I think it’s helped to do that for me.
There’s a second, chapbook-length half to the Weston project, focused on the trip that Edward Weston took while making photos for a 1940’s edition of Leaves of Grass, about which he wrote surprisingly little. I’m getting to write into that absence, imagining what he might have thought about his experience, which really was a social one–he went with his wife, Charis, and was drawn quite a bit toward people rather than things along the way, and also drawn away from thing-like representations of people. They appear more in context, sitting on a porch, standing against a wall, connected to the worlds around them. He didn’t see these photos as illustrating Whitman, though–he called them “my America” (tentatively the title of the full length book, hopefully not grandiose :).
But, again, in those poems, I’m really writing about myself and the attempt to perceive things in a way unmediated by technology, which really brings me to the point of realizing just how ingrained the technology is in my consciousness. Like him back then, and maybe like a lot of people now, I often see scenes, especially natural or historical ones, as possible photos.
Writing these poems has helped me to see a positive side to that, where, before, I’d only seen it in dystopian terms–“if reality is endlessly deferred by technology, then there’s no hope of experiencing the present moment,” etc. And social media and poetry both have this aspect, for me, that comes back to the sharing of things, instead of experiencing some kind of absolute solitude ghosted by memories and images of people. I need to be with people, to have that real contact, but I can share at least some of what’s going on in me through whatever technology is at hand, and then I’m connected, however tangentially. Even if feeling free of social pressures helps me write sometimes, the connection with others is what the writing is really about.
And these poems maybe came out of that idea, too–the Weston of the poems has stopped writing to a person that never existed to begin with, opening him up to a reality that technology helps him touch. My teacher, Rodney Jones, said one time that poetry started as technology, and I like to think of it that way, still–a technology that helps intimacy, helps love, maybe in a way that nothing else can.
She’s the image you are but far more
Sex was a lead lens
A photograph is not a ghost or past