They come from conversations overheard or taken part in, sights, sounds and the other senses, recall, reading, when alone or in company. Poems drop into the growing matrix of all we’ve felt and known. For those who write, it goes on all day long. But only a few land propitiously and work their way into what lies beneath to root and grow. The best of them find earth particularly suited to the nature of the seed and Jacqueline Saphra’s introduction to the highly ekphrastic A Bargain with the Light (Hercules Press, 2017) records just such a moment.
This exquisitely produced little book also contains a discussion of the model and photographer, Lee Miller, by the academic, Patricia Allmer. Miller emerges from this as a multitude; as object, agent, speaker, spoken of, product and producer – in Allmer’s words a “key female icon of the twentieth century”. And so, in 2016, visiting the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition, ‘Lee Miller: A Woman’s War’, Saphra was stopped “in her tracks” by a nude photograph of Miller, taken by her father. Saphra explains: “How could I not be drawn to this extraordinary, wounded woman [. . .] with her huge capacity for creativity, her beauty, her restlessness?” It can take only a moment for both the drawer and the drawn to discover in each other a mutual compatibility.
The poems that arose from Saphra’s fascination with Lee Miller take the form of an heroic crown of sonnets. The form incorporates repeats and revisitings as well as replicating, in its constituent short forms, the brief instantaneous moment of the taken photograph. By coincidence, I’ve used a less strict form of the crown of sonnets recently and, in search of a propulsive, forward movement within the sequence opted not to repeat lines verbatim and also to cut the fifteenth sonnet which repeats many lines once more. But Saphra adheres to the form pretty tightly and in doing so reflects the remarkable recurrences in Miller’s life. Though she finds some evidence of maturation and progress, her chosen form argues against this. The penultimate sonnet declares: “you’re still the same girl who trembled / in the snow wearing only silence”.
This reference is to one of the earliest images of Miller, taken by her father – as a stark naked 7 year old, standing in 2 feet of snow in her home town, Poughkeepsie. It’s an appalling image, but Saphra’s verse derives from it two elements that will recur: the (definitely creepy) power of the father and the fact that Miller is hiding in full (full frontal) sight. ‘Darkroom Lessons’ addresses another naked image of Miller, again taken by her father. But now she is a 20 year old woman. She turns her head aside as if she’s just been struck. For Saphra:
You turn and strike a pose.
Once more, you look beyond. This time your face
in profile signals absence. Your skin glows [. . .]
Miller’s nakedness demands she hide herself and the gaze from which she hides . . .
again: the father, tucked behind the lens
sharing his expertise. This is how it starts:
with naked lines and curves; it ends
with lessons in the darkroom. This is art.
The euphemistic “lessons in the darkroom” allude to the fact that Miller was sexually abused in childhood – though by a neighbour, rather than her father.
By the 1930s Miller had reached Paris, her naked body now proving an inspiration to artists like Man Ray. But Saphra’s poems indicate that while still an object, Miller is becoming more of an agent too: “This is your chance / to know his secrets, so you play his game”. In her compliance, Miller learned much from Man Ray. ‘The Art of Control’ responds to a watershed moment, a self-portrait image from around 1930: “You steal his eye and take both sides: / In front, behind: the seer and the seen”. The poem concludes (quietly, plainly as ever) marking Miller’s bid for an independence and freedom (as woman and artist) that perhaps seemed unlikely:
No deal to cut, no tacit threat, no flesh:
Sweetly, you make your bargain with the light,
The only safe transaction. You took this.
Here is your face. Simple. Nothing amiss.
The sonnet crown demands that this concluding line is repeated as the first line of the subsequent poem. The risk that we might read the line too simplistically and optimistically is reduced when we hear much the same words re-applied to Miller’s 1944 photograph of a French woman accused of collaboration with the Nazis – her head shaved: “Here is your face, simple, nothing amiss”. As in this instance, as the sequence unfolds, more of the sonnets are in the voice of Miller herself. This technical shift marks the artist’s growing self confidence and one of Saphra’s suggestions is evidently that, having suffered much in her youth, she is able to confront head-on the suffering of others. And hence take a great photograph.
So Miller’s image, ‘The Burgermeister’s daughter’ is of a Nazi woman who has poisoned herself. To take the image, Miller must have got very close. So too with the frightening ‘Beaten SS prison guard’, his goggling eyes and smashed, bloodstained face filling the frame. Miller took it on a visit to the Buchenwald Camp. Saphra makes Miller speak of it:
I learned how to escape. How well I hid,
how close I dared to stand. I fix my focus
inches from his face, his eyes clear, the blood
congealing on his skin. If there’s disgust,
I channel it, and if there’s fear, I know
how to burn it, use it for fuel.
The sonnet sequence does not unfold strictly chronologically. In the midst of Miller’s war years, there’s a poem in response to an image of a 6 year old Miller with her mother; then there’s another of the whole Miller family in 1911. The strategy here maybe be (reflecting the repetition of the crown form) to suggest how much of the little (abused) girl remained within the confident, female war photographer. But it does give rise to some arid repetition. In one poem Miller tells us “I’ll learn to play both naked and concealed” and in the other we are again reminded, “You learned how to escape. How well you hid”.
But how far Miller must have come is suggested by one of the strangest of the images here, the 1943 ‘US Army nurse drying sterilised rubber gloves’. The white uniformed, virginal nurse stands comically surrounded by grasping rubber gloves arrayed on sort of hat-stands to dry. Her figure is grotesquely dwarfed by the grasping and groping that goes on around her. Miller speaks in Saphra’s poem, reflecting on her own inner turmoil:
Where are the doctors? When will they begin
to make it better? I watch and wait
as if they’ll find a cure for this malaise,
as if the storm inside can be erased.
Though elsewhere, Miller’s voice rings out much more defiantly (“I’ll crash in, braced / to win, dig for mercy, shoot for grace”) it’s the still-troubled “girl who trembled / in the snow” we are left with in sonnet 14. If Miller truly is Allmer’s “female icon” then she is – in Saphra’s treatment of her – one achieving only a pyrrhic victory in the twentieth century gender battles: “You square your shoulders, soldier on”. Yet the poems are all the more moving because of this. The poet’s profound identification with Miller, her deployment of ekphrastic techniques and her clever use of the crown form make for a very satisfying read. It goes without saying that Hercules Press’ production and design is stunning. This is a little book to treasure or – as it’s getting close to Christmas – to give.