Big congratulations to C. Dale Young, NER’s Poetry Editor, on his 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry!
Read more about this year’s Fellows at Jacket Copy.
Art that values quietness—that embraces understatement and restraint—has always intrigued me. I think of moments in the poems of Jane Hirshfield and Linda Gregg; Walker Evans’s portraits in rural Alabama; the paintings of Edward Hopper. I picture Hopper’s women sitting alone in rooms, or the faces of tenement farmers in Evans’s photos, and appreciate the way a work of art can mesmerize with subtlety and quiet gestures. Similarly, photographer Isa Leshko’s project, “Elderly Animals,” captivates me with its straightforward portraiture; it’s the embodiment of what I admire in an artist’s work.
The animals in these portraits have lived a very long time, sometimes under trying circumstances. The images are simple and clear. But they are not devoid of complexity; in viewing these photos I’m confronted with some of the richest themes and most difficult questions one can face as a human and an artist. Mortality weighs on us. It’s difficult to get old; awful to see loved ones suffer and die. Considering these themes, Leshko’s project could have easily veered into sentimentality, but doesn’t. How does an artist explore these issues without pulling the heart strings in an obvious and unoriginal way? And even worse than sentimentality is the potential for exploitation. How do we decide what’s appropriate to document in our photos and poems, and how do we honor our subjects? When should we leave well enough alone? Leshko’s photos urge me to consider the relationship between an artist and her subject. Is it collaborative? Has an emotional or moral agreement been made? Or is the situation one in which an outsider looks in on the “other”? And how can we answer any of these questions definitively?
In Leshko’s artist statement, she explains that “Elderly Animals” was born from a conscious decision not to photograph her own mother who was ill with Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, she turned her lens to a subject that still speaks movingly to the indignity of our minds and bodies falling apart; the harm enacted on those we care for. Just as Marianne Moore’s poem “The Fish” isn’t really about fish, one could say that Leshko’s portraits are as much about mortality and resilience as they are about animals. Still, the audience is first engaged by the faces of these creatures—their clear, quiet gaze. We look directly into their eyes. We study the sheep with its patchy coat. The threadbare wing of the rooster, reminiscent of that gorgeous line in Robinson Jeffers’s poem “Hurt Hawks”—“the wing trails like a banner in defeat.” Despite the effects of time and harm, these portraits, amazingly, show animals at ease. Some appear curious; others rest in piles of hay. I admire, and am inspired by, Leshko’s ability to document the decline of vitality, while still treating her subjects with grace and dignity.
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Kellam Ayres’s poems have appeared in NER and The Collagist, and are forthcoming in The Cortland Review. She is a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the Bread Loaf School of English, and works for the Middlebury College Library. Isa Leshko’s work will be on exhibit May-June at the Houston Center for Photography, in Houston, Texas, and at the Silver Eye Center for Photography, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
At Electric Literature, artists animate short stories with multimedia displays. Above, Alice Cohen remixes “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child” by Joy Williams:
But instead of a broom, she carried the lamp that illuminated the things people did not know or were reluctant or refused to understand. And she would lower the lamp over a person and they would see how extraordinary were the birds and beasts of the world, and that they should be valued for their bright and beautiful and mysterious selves and not willfully harmed, for they were more precious than castles or the golden rocks dug out from the earth.
A. J. Sherman (NER 25.4, 2004) sums up a collection of Isaiah Berlin’s early letters:
Berlin remained consistently concerned with the dignity of individual human beings, with their perforce difficult and even tragic choices among values that inevitably and often hopelessly clashed. He rejected absolutes, distrusting “all claims to the possession of incorrigible knowledge about issues of fact or principle in any sphere of human behavior,” as Hardy has observed. Denying the Enlightenment view that there could eventually be a convergence, a synthesis of all human aspirations and values, Berlin instead maintained that values and ideals will always conflict, and that however we may be convinced of the rightness of our ultimate choice, we have no authority to insist that it govern the lives of others as well. Berlin was fond of quoting Kant’s “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” but insisted that his pluralist view of human possibility was not to be confused with relativism. The Kant quotation gave its title to another selection of Berlin’s essays, edited by Henry Hardy: The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas (1990). Berlin abhorred the notion, cherished inter alia by missionaries, terrorists, and ideologues of all persuasions, that “organized happiness” is a desirable aim and that coercive sacrifices in the name of some Utopia are justifiable in pursuit of the ideal. Although he was capable of understanding those whose views he found objectionable, he felt closest to such personal heroes as Herzen, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and in the twentieth century above all Akhmatova. Throughout Isaiah Berlin’s writing the tone is free, animated, never pedantic or insistent, asking of the reader only openness, a degree of worldly curiosity; the arguments persuade by charm as well as by logic.[read more]