Thursday, March 28, 2013

TO-READ l A Box of Photographs

The title of today's post is, admittedly, misleading. For, in fact, I have to talk about two books, both published by The University of Chicago Press. "Have to" as in am fortunate enough to have read both. I couldn't pick just one, and didn't care to cram the titles of both books together up above, in fear that it would read like I had planned to talk about A Box of Photographs, by Roger Grenier, but changed my mind and was "recalculating" the whole business of writing about books at all, instead opting to blog about, say, new restaurants opening around town. "TO-READ: Boneless Thursdays at Buffalo Wild Wings." That said, both books could find shelter under the umbrella of "A Box of Photographs," as both, I think, are meant, or built, to be sorted through as such.

For one thing, Roger Grenier's memoir, translated from the French by Alice Kaplan, is divided in short chapters, more like fragments of stained glass, that very much resemble pictures of a life. His boyhood growing up in Pau, learning to ski, develop film, and to infer a fairly accurate familial hierarchy based on who owned what size and model of camera; his efforts in the war as an outside member of The French Resistance, shooting with his father's Voightlander, instead of a gun, which ironically is what nearly gets him killed; his many friendships somewhat superstitiously entwined by each owning the same brand of camera: a Leica.

The title then's a working one that typifies the tone and form throughout: chronological though nonlinear, compelling but devoid of that which falls outside the frame; the omnipotent narrator, in other words, who tends to save the day by backing up to bring to light the past and future reeking peripheral havoc on our subject, as perhaps all truly satisfying stories must be. That is, incomplete, so that we may "recognize the ways that resistance to easy assimilation might sustain our engagement with the poem," as Charles Bernstein writes. It's true that Grenier's "box" is not, strictly speaking, a book of poems, but it's close enough in structure to Recalculating, that to deconstruct and impute one over the other as more worthy or in need of our efforts as readers would be to deny ourselves a great pleasure. Namely, that of watching these writers variously widen and zoom in on what's at stake, which changes with what Berstein calls "the flow of perception," and which aggregates to form less one well-rehearsed thesis than, as the title of Bernstein's book suggests, one well-nurtured writer still rampantly finding and losing their way.

For Grenier that means wondering what happened to the pictures he remembers but can't find, and looking for them buried in some shoebox, while coming across others he can't place. For Bernstein, alchemizing history, poetics, ingenuity and adage to proclaim, as many voices, that poetry and politics, the personal and social, are inseparable. "Nothing forced you to advance the film after you took the photo," Grenier writes, in stark contrast to the ease with which we now "develop" and disperse images. It seems as if such lack of force and of agenda, by extension, lends these books their many eyes and ears.  

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