But his real subject is light,
I realize, as I turn the pages
of this old book of Clarence White’s photographs
I’ve come across by chance, here, looking around
this large rambling house, packed with art and books,
on a rainy summer afternoon in Connecticut
where I’m staying with friends for the weekend.
Grainy, pale black and white images
that evoke a whole, lost, distant world—of light.
For instance, here in this still life:
the objects simply disappear.
Light and shadows curve into a torso,
then swirl into other sculptural forms
and momentarily settle
into a backdrop whorl of light,
before diffusing into something else.
Or, in this one:
slightly blurred, off-focus, light-struck—
the streaks of white flowers blown
across a summer field could be snow.
And as I keep turning the pages, I see images
that are now not even memories.
Of seasons, and scenery, and people.
Posing in their summer-white clothes.
Young men, in suits with vests and pocket watches,
their eyes burning with the myths of youth;
older men with paunches and jowls,
reflecting their well-fed, prosperous state.
And women, with parasols, in gowns of chiffon clouds.
Diaphanous, ethereal apparitions of an age
that wanted to remain in a purely imaginary realm.
On summer lawns and riverbanks and in meadows.
And fawnlike children, who flow
against the liquid, perhaps gold-green, smoked light
of the summer foliage at dusk.
Orchards and fields, viewed through the stained glass
windows of small-town churches,
in the turn-of-the-century Midwest.
And a few large-city scenes to document the New Age
that is about to replace all this.
One, where a ship seems to float,
shimmering with light, in the evening mist,
at the end of a pale, empty street.
The light that is always there—
outlining forms and structures into relief,
highlighting certain parts and simply removing others.
And as I keep looking, trying to decipher,
some of the images caught by his lens—
picnics, summer games, small-town streets
with white wooden houses and storefronts with signs—
take on the lexicography of dreams,
the mnemonic of another, parallel world
that is still here,
though it has long ago vanished.
As now, looking at these images, this moment,
also, is slowly becoming part of the invisible
country of the ongoing past,
we are always on our way toward.
Here, where we are so briefly, in the light.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 5, on page 41
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