For all the potential strengths and weaknesses comparable between different art forms, sometimes mediums are more complimentary than competing. Such is the case with Emblems of the Passing World, a recent poetry collection from Adam Kirsch. In this collection, Kirsch bases his poems on early
20th-century photographs by August Sander, a German photographer. Using Sander’s images of people who are now (almost certainly) deceased, Kirsch effectively portrays strong emotional attachments accompanying time and place to situate modern readers with the people in the images, creating a sweeping portrayal of trans-generational humanity.
The book’s simplistic arrangement makes the collection approachable and the reading manageable, as photographs are placed on the lefthand page with the same-titled poems displayed on the right. The writing frequently captures minute details of the photographs with such casual mention that these details gain prominent significance in the poetry without being overstated or detracting from the essence of the photographs. Such an arrangement fascinates; the reader’s vision is forced left and right repeatedly, studying the photographs to return to the poems, so that both the visual and the print are read repeatedly and pondered over in more detail than they would have been by themselves. The recursive process of writing is mirrored in the way art illuminates history, and the lack of chronological order to the photographs–they skip from the early1900s to the early 1950s–enhances the temporal elasticity of both the photographs and their accompanying poems.
Class is the most primary theme, easily recognizable by how the images frequently identify the subject with their work and how the sections are (mostly) organized by different tiers of society. Occupation titles the photographs, and thus the poems, so that the individual becomes synonymous with their social position. The subjects encompass a wide range of occupational incomes, including: the impoverished “Match-seller” and laborers like the “Fitter,” as well as the higher-class educated “Laboratory Technician” or the “Iceland Scholar and University Librarian.” Some titles directly mention class, especially the photographs of “Small-town Women” and “Working-class Mother”, which contrast works placed elsewhere in the book like “Society Lady” and “Professional Middle-class Couple.” For each, Kirsch poetically untangles the details of the work from the individual, showing that the consummation of our lives may be the output of our work–regardless of what work we do–but that should not necessarily be what is most remembered about us even though it often is. Take, for instance, these lines from “Office Worker”:
“What work it is she does: the management / Of paper and the hurrying of time / Down the deep hole where all her colleagues went /And where we’ll go, whose labor is the same” (13-16). The photograph of the woman sitting at her unadorned desk encompasses the sense of futility that these words convey; we are used for work. Rarely can the individual, the human being, be known as much as the product of their labors. This misplaced focus, the poems seem to say, is a sad consequence of reality.
Another realistic consequence poetically expounded upon is that of deliberate infliction. Writing about anything from this period of German history inevitably involves discussion of the wars that so plagued the early twentieth century. This is most prominent in the photos of children taken before World War
II in which Kirsch hints at what these children (likely) grew up to be. For example, the 1920s photograph and subsequent poem “Farm Woman and Her Children” states the baby held in his mother’s arms
“…will begin to learn at nine or ten; / Nothing can hope to undermine, till then, / His confidence that she’ll protect him from / The monster he is going to become” (13-16). Alluding to the
Holocaust as stemming from once-innocent children, right next to the pictured baby, is disquieting and strikingly effective in impressing horror upon the reader. “Widow with Her Sons,” which discusses the image of a wife and children of a fallen WWI German solider, displays a similar rhetorical effect by positing a possible future for the children from a vantage point where the past almost certainly proves it:
“To certify they’ve grown up into men / Whose deeds she won’t believe or understand,” (13-14). As Kirsch transforms the lives of these photographed children into bold admissions of what they all-too-probably were, we are still unable to “understand” how such a transformation happens even though knowledge dictates that it did.
The collection is a neverending reminder of the inevitability of time and change and their capacity for making unknowable that which they drastically alter. The world is always in a state of passing away because it is comprised of individuals and their experiences. We are, all of us, “emblems” that are all too fleeting. As Kirsch shows us here, art–be it photography or poetry–may be the only true way to leave any impression of ourselves beyond the limits of our existence. Even those representations, though, are subject to change through the construction of interpretation and how such a process is adapted to current generations.