On Nantucket, eighty-year-old Connie Congdon and I sat in her dim living room looking at the 120-year-old plaster dildo that a mason had found in her chimney. It now rested in a pink dress box on her lap. At my feet, three sweet-faced Australian shepherd dogs snapped at houseflies. A catbird sang in the street. Her house is an old colonial buried deep in a nest of lanes in the historic downtown.
Connie said she usually kept the box in the pantry, near the urn of her daughter’s cat, Spanky. In the box were the other antiques the mason had found with the dildo: six charred envelopes from the 1890s addressed to Captain James B. Coffin; letters from the same James B. Coffin to Grover Cleveland and Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Dehl; a dirty and frayed shirt collar; a pipe that still smelled of tobacco when I fit my nose in the bowl; and a green glass laudanum bottle. These items must have been hidden in the chimney by James’s wife, Martha “Mattie” Coffin, sometime between when the letters were dated and when she died in 1928. The fireplace was later sealed up, and a closet was built in front of it. With these valuables, Connie kept a CD recording of her late husband, Tom, being interviewed about the dildo for Nantucket Public Radio. “It’s the only recording I have of his voice,” she said.
Lady Gaga says she truly cares about all her Little Monsters
and if you don’t believe her that is just because you don’t know her.
They send her fan videos, tell her about the bullying
and the beatings
and she takes it all in. One night a bulimic approached me
at KGB Bar.
Stoic faces, stiff poses, graceful envelope rhyme—this book is built on the difference between a caption and a title, between identifying an image and re-animating it. As Adam Kirsch writes in his introduction to Emblems of the Passing World, August Sander’s photographs reveal “what is ordinarily hidden from us—the way we ourselves appear, and will appear to posterity, as types, when we stubbornly insist on experiencing ourselves as individuals.”
The poems that follow are based on photographs of citizens from Germany’s Weimar Republic, a period of political upheaval between the first and second World Wars. Despite severe economic inequality during these years, many of Germany’s most famous artists and writers flourished, including August Sander, a photographer with the ambition of documenting people from all walks of life. Rather than using names, the portraits identify their sitters by social class or occupation, and the poems use their captions as titles. Kirsch, who is both critical and admiring of Sander, carves these subjects from the geological strata of their history and attempts to give them back a semblance of individuality.
Olivia ZhengReview: Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander
In the cabinet in the atrium outside my office is a glass display case that holds, among other things, a beautiful kidney shaped vessel, its patina smoothed by use. Label: “Brass Pus Basin.” It is an object to stand and stare down at for a while, intentionally or idly, to move on from and return to, to see in passing. Nearby, as part of an exhibit on bloodletting and cupping, are 18th- and 19th-century thumb lancets with their sharp little blades and tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl handles. In the next case over, a collection of 40 or so calculi (“bladder stones”) of varied size and shape, all disturbingly large. This is the Warren Anatomical Museum, at Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library, where “the dead teach the living.”
The town was segregated, not by laws but by economics. The lines were almost too stark. The northeast side of town was the “black side of town” while the southwest side of town, the farthest away from northeast, was the well-to-do, upper-middle-class “nice neighborhood.” The truly well off lived outside city limits in large homes built along cul-de-sacs in the middle of hardwood forests. I lived in the giant trailer park north of town, just across the railroad tracks from the NE housing projects.
It had nearly 400 trailers, a hamlet of tin cans. The trailers were singlewides, mostly from the 60s and 70s, and placed close together with small patches of grass between. They were set on concrete pads and anchored with “tornado straps,” metal bands bolted into the ground. It was a cheap place to live. A guy I worked with at Domino’s Pizza had lived there and sold his trailer to me and my friend Jon for $2,000. Lot rent was $100 a month, including water and trash.