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.
Review: Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander
It’s possible to call a river an organ of speech. It has a mouth, and a source, and down the length of its body the sounds it makes go through physical transformations, changing the tones of its voice.
British poet Alice Oswald begins her book-length poem Dart by asserting this comparison between the poet’s voice and the river’s. She asserts that the people living along the Dart who lend their speech to the book’s personas function as “life-models from which to sketch out a series of characters—linking their voices into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea… These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river’s mutterings.”
This note gives just a glimpse of the complex labor of translation behind this work—one that surpasses the conventional personification of natural forms. Oswald, who spent two years recording the conversations of people who live and work on the Dart, set out to transform the voice of the river into English through the way its familiars talk.