1. Long exposure, 1892
All of them dead by now, and posed
so stiffly, in their sepia Sunday
best, they seem half-dead already.
Father and Eldest Son, each dressed
in high-cut jacket and floppy tie,
never get to sit in the sitting room.
They stand to face a firing squad
behind Mother and the little girls
themselves bolt upright on the sofa,
hands at their sides, their center-parted
hair pulled back, two rows of rickrack
flanking the twenty buttons down
the plumb line of their bodices.
And here, discovered alone downstage
and slightly to the left, the boy
such a beautiful boy. Although
theyve tried to make him a little man,
upholstering him in herringbone,
you can see him itching to run out
with his hoop and stick, happy because
even at this moment, when
nobody could be happy, he knows
in the tilt of his blond head, the frank
time-burning gaze beneath his cowlick
that he is the most loved.
2. Flappers, 1925
Im in the guesthouse some days before
focusing on another portrait:
professional, black-and-white, composed
to lend a spacious dignity
to the one life lived behind each face.
Again, the dates approximate;
Im guessing from the arty look,
the flapperish, drop-waisted frock
and ropes of wooden beads on the wife
ofyes, it has to be. No more
the poster boy for posterity,
hes a commanding forty. The cowlicks
still there (although now he slicks
it down with something), and he still
cocks his head to one side, a hint
of flirtation, exasperationwhat?
in the eyes he trains at the camera
as if hed give me what I want
if only he could emerge now from
the frame. We stare in mutual
boldness while his wifes long profile
is tendered to the child between them.
One girl: a modern family.
I speculate a little son
was lost to the great flu; even so,
this fair-haired Zelda in a bob,
ten years old, would come to seem
enough, the image of her father.
The smile high-cheeked and confident,
the shining eyes, the upturned chin
people matter more now; theyll die
less often, now that the Great Wars over;
everyones allowed to sit down.
3. Wheelchair, 2000
The jumbles of grinning faces jammed
together at birthdays and Christmases
in color photos around the house
dont interest me.
Theyre merely today, or close enough;
anybody can record it
and does; if everythings recorded
But puttering about, the guest
of a ghost I now am half in love with,
Im drawn one day to pluck one image
off the piano.
A wedding. Or some minutes after,
outside a church Ive seen in town.
The bride, who has exercised her right
to veil, white gown,
and any decorum life affords
these days, is surrounded by the girls
some floral aunts, a gawky niece
in her first pearls
and all the men in blazers, khakis
running shoes? Boys will be boys.
Squirming, they squint into the sun:
shutterbug has made sure they cant
see us, or we see them, and yet
I understand now who is shaded
there in the wheelchair.
Dwindled, elderly, its Zelda
her lumpy little body slumped
like a dolls in a highchair, shoes just
grazing the footrest.
It must be she. However many
lives her hair went throughForties
complications held with tortoise-
shell combs; beehives;
softer bouffants like Jackies; fried
and sprayed gray-pincurl granny perms
in all the years (say, seventy-five?)
since I last saw her,
shes come back to that sleek, side-parted
bob, which (though its white) encloses
the girl whos smiling, pert, high-cheeked,
despite the pull
of gravity: just like her father.
Or as he was. When did he die,
and how? What was his name? Whats yours?
I could find out,
surely, when I leave here; the owner
might well be her granddaughter.
I could scout, too, for snapshots even
get-together with no wheelchair
to prove what Im sensing: Zeldas gone.
Why would they bother to frame this scene,
unless its the last?
But why should we care so for people
not us or oursrecognized by sight
alonewhose voices never spoke
with wit or comfort
to us, and whose very thoughts,
imagined, every year grow quainter?
Yet they must have felt this tug as well,
peering at someone they were bound
to come back to, as in a mirror.
Who says theyre more anonymous
than I am,
packing up after my two weeks
in the guesthouse? I make one last study
of Zeldas father, lingering with
the boy, the man,
sealing his developing
face in myself for safekeeping.
Too soon to leave. But then, nobody
ever stays here long.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 5, on page 29
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