My mother loved photographs. She carefully labeled them, organized them, and then stored them in photograph albums. Obviously, she is not the only one who did this, but today, it seems, outside of those who keep photographs in their scrapbooks, photographs are stored on computers, cell phones, and digital cameras. Benjamin Vogt’s collection of poems, Afterimage, reminds me of the time before digital pictures were the norm. Using family photographs to trace personal history, Afterimage explores how we define personal identity.
Vogt begins his collection with a poem titled “Three Photos That Define Me” which contains three stanzas. The first stanza describes a section of Interstate 40 between Oklahoma City and Weatherford where the El Reno prison is located. The poet doesn’t focus on the prison itself, but rather the landscape where “a sign warns that hitchhiker may be/escaping convicts” and where “a gray shirt lies flattened/on the white line of the highway.” In the second stanza, the poet writes a miniature portrait of a little girl who comes walking in from a field where “cows have been grazing on the bent/stalks of butter-colored wheat.” Finally, in the third stanza, we see what we will come to believe is the poet himself: “One child wears a Pepsi sweater, leans away/from grandma’s goodbye kisses.” These brief stanzas provide a perfect prologue to this collection that serves as an elegy to a Midwest of the past and to the people who lived there. Indeed, the poems that follow will incorporate people in worn landscapes, in a hardscrabble world where determination, or perhaps just plain stubbornness, guides their daily lives.
The poems weave in and out of the past. Often, these poems tell stories, so much so that I forgot that I was reading a collection based on photographs. For instance, in “High School Mixer” we read about a young boy’s adventure at a dance where “he’s clearly used to something else — not girls/that’s brutally clear.” Other poems are poetic profiles of people. For instance, in “Uncle with Landscape — Kansas, 1954” the poet offers a portrait of a small boy standing in a farmhouse yard where “spades and rusted buckets lean/against a toppled silo.” In yet another poem, “Mildred, Two Fords, and Her Friends at 16 — 1938” a work plucked from another time period, we see the story of more than one girl in a single poem, but mostly clearly hear the voice of the narrator who states, “But it’s just a blur–/who I was, the girls, the sudden stir/of dust-filled shadows on these roads.”
There are also poems of lyrical moments, often told from a narrator who seems to be in deep meditation with the natural world around him. “Fishing,” for instance, serves as a love poem of sorts: “I’ll cast your soul out over the lily pads in June/skip it along the smooth evening surface/hit the pink reflections of the sunset behind/my hapless expressions.” In another work, “July, Just Outside Columbus” the poet catalogs the sexual tension of the landscape through the insect world — indeed, the language is so gentle and rich that the reader will forget that the poem is about insects (or is it?). The lines are visually striking, and we see that “fireflies are hovering over corn” and that “Beetle bodies pulse/bright chemicals like breath released/into the body light the ground ahead.” My favorite lines start the second stanza: “Males are calling, their incandescent lust/an impatient spark, the female’s waiting glow/a calm amongst this storm that binds desire to action.”
Those who read this collection wanting a clear chronological narrative arc will not find it. These poems bounce back and forth through time, carefully cataloging individual moments in history and the present. Readers will find stories, stories of grandparents, uncles and aunts, fathers and mothers — people of the past and fading landscapes, and hopeful glimpses of the future.
For more information about Afterimage and poet Benjamin Vogt, visit his website.