Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Something Permanent: Walker Evans, Cynthia Rylant

You know there are moments such as these
when time stands still
and all you do is hold your breath
and hope it will wait for you.
-Dorothea Lange

A picture is worth a thousand words. So goes the old adage. And so goes the haunting photographs of Walker Evans (1903-1975), best known for his documentation of everyday folk and scenes during the Great Depression in America.

Cynthia Rylant, in Something Permanent (Harcourt, Brace & Company; 1994), doesn’t need a thousand words to tell the stories she sees in Evans’ photographs. She employs the poetic form to marry simple subjects with lean verse. Even the titles of the poems cut right to the subject; all but one contain a single word.

But you’ve only to spend a few minutes with an Evans picture to realize that the subject matter is anything but simple. Rylant’s poems, inspired by the stories in the pictures, accomplish the same thing, inviting the reader to look beyond the immediate image that emerges in an economy of language.

I found this book a few weeks ago while out bookscouting and was captivated by the Walker Evans photos. After I got home with it, I began to examine the photos more closely. Evans’ photos are famous and some looked familiar, some did not. I also looked more closely at the interpretive poems created by Rylant for each picture. The short poems, like the accompanying images, invite you to imagine more, to read between the lines, to expand the story and try to understand the circumstances of a frozen moment, and, perhaps more importantly, what might have happened afterward.

This image of a cemetery and the unusual grave marker was my initial favorite in the book (favorites rotate in this work like a carousel) and aroused a flood of questions and imaginative thinking. And I think Ms. Rylant gives a fine accounting in the companion poem, Tombstone:
There wasn’t much excitement to be found
anywhere nearby,
so people would just go to the cemetery
when they wanted to give their
visiting company something interesting to do,
and they’d show them the man and the dog,
and folks would marvel
and say things like,
how do you s’pose they
got them ribs in that dog
how much you figure a tombstone
like this’d cost?
Then, without fail,
Before leaving
Each had shyly to
Lean over and stroke that lovely dog’s head,
Swallowing back the “good boy”
That was on their wondering lips.
This is interesting. Rylant chose to imagine the reactions of strangers upon visting the cemetery and spotting the life-like sculpture of a man and his dog. I might have been inclined to approach the image from an historical perspective, wanting to create a story about who the man was, how he died, and what happened to his dog.

But Rylant travels back to rural Mississippi (photo credits indicate this photo is titled Mississippi, December 1935) and creates a mood for the time. During the Great Depression, in a small town or rural area, there couldn’t have been much to do nor money to do much of anything. Going to the cemetery could pass for entertaining visitors, where it was certain a particular tombstone would capture their imaginations.

This must have been the case with Walker Evans as he traveled through Mississippi and came across this tombstone in this cemetery. And that’s how Rylant chose to approach the image in verse—from a visitor’s perspective.

Cynthia Rylant, I discovered, is a writer known primarily for her books for children and young adults. I thought she might have been primarily a poet so I was looking for more information about her and her writing. Apparently, this book was aimed at a young adult audience, but its content transcends any age group she or her publisher might have intended for this book. There are a couple of informative sites that provide the details of this author’s background and bibliography:

Interestingly, or appropriately, the first image I found of Rylant was a picture of her with her dog. That on the heels of the cemetery picture and her poem, Tombstone.

And about that cemetery… that got me to wondering about the title of this book, Something Permanent. Where do we find permanence in a constantly changing world? Death? Or is it the perceived permanence of a moment captured on film, a split-second from the continuum of time? But photographs aren't permanent; they fade away eventually, revealing an impermanent medium.

A quotation at the beginning of the book, repeated at the beginning of this post and again below) may hold a clue. From photojournalist Dorothea Lange, a contemporary of Walker Evans, Rylant has included the following lines:
You know there are moments such as these
when time stands still
and all you do is hold your breath
and hope it will wait for you.
These poeticized lines are taken from a statement by Lange in reference to her first attempt at social documentary through her lens. But she will always be best known for the photograph, Migrant Mother.Could it be that Something Permanent refers to time and these photographs represent an attempt to borrow a piece of the permanence, much like the displaced migrant mother seeking more permanence in her life--home, food, etc. Perhaps Something Permanent speaks metaphorically for the human condition and the spirit of hope against hopelessness, both of which flow through these images and words. I don't know for sure.

But one thing I do know, Something Permanent is truly something exceptional to read and absorb.

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