A Prologue to Optic Nerve
In Optic Nerve Janet Sternburg exquisitely balances both the line and the image in two different arts — the poetic and the visual line, and the visual and the poetic image. Because she is one of those rare individuals in the contemporary arts who is equally talented both as a photographer and as a poet, Sternburg can vividly integrate text and image, daring to fuse photography and poetry into a single art genre. Marianne Moore, in her poem, “The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing,” describes the mind as being “like Gieseking playing Scarlatti,” referring to the hallmark of the pianist’s gift: he struck each note with equal weight, each finger of his hand exerting the same pressure. Janet Sternburg’s double art shares this idea of equal weight. Her photopoems open up new ideas of metaphor, redefining both poetry and photography with a sense of interplay that can only come with equally weighted ability.
When we discuss a poet’s vision, I think we are largely speaking of a poet’s metaphors and imagery because metaphors and similes are for the most part visual. Although I haven’t done an actual count, I would casually guess that visual imagery makes up more than three quarters of all the metaphors and similes ever made. The photopoem, in Sternburg’s hands, aims to make actual the idea of the poet’s vision. Sternburg’s poetry, which is often about art, imagines new visual metaphors in language and superimposes her already metaphorical photographs (which may appear to be digitally manipulated but are not) into and onto linguistic metaphors. If you believe the world is complex, then this complexity is delicious to relish.
For instance, in section five of her photopoem “The Picnic,” she gathers the friends Willa Cather, Thomas Eakins, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Walt Whitman for an outing, inserting a landscape photograph after the lines, “savoring a word sharpening/ a phrase / watched” and before the lines “elbows of stars touch/ night.” Thus, a photographically realized landscape becomes an integral part of the vision of the poem. And in “Vitalie Rimbaud,” the effect is even more dramatic. A photograph giving the surreal effect of hands superimposed on window or jail bars opening onto the stone surface of an empty village square becomes an integrated metaphorical vision between the lines “she walked on the same stones, infinite / versions of the count” and “Easter . . . the town/ streaming through the square.” The empty square seems to be preparing for the crowds to stream through it. (And let me remind you again, as I have often to remind myself, that the surreality comes not from digital manipulation but from the visual circumstances at the moment the photograph was taken: a window reflection.)
In this way Janet Sternburg dares to challenge the idea of poetic vision, literally bringing the vision of the poet into active play, creating visions inside the text, not as illustrations but as part of the body of the poems, each photograph defining the poem just as the line and metaphor define it. Strangely and fascinatingly, she conceives of photographs prosodically; they literally become part of the rhythm and diction of each of her poems.
I met Janet Sternburg because I wrote her a fan letter after I read her memoir – perhaps metamemoir is a more appropriate name for the genre she was working in – Phantom Limb. We have met only once in person, though we have enjoyed some electric long distance conversations, many of which have been about these poems – which are positively phantasmagoric! Phantom images abound, as well as phantom memories, even phantom earrings. Janet Sternburg not only works with the Optic Nerve in her poems, she has optic nerve – and optic verve. Her ambition is huge: to visually materialize a linguistic thought process and thus to create a new art form. I applaud her; I am in awe of her twenty-first-century lingua-visual designs and of the marvelous possibilities her art represents for us now, and in the future. Molly Peacock, Toronto
More on Optic Nerve:
Available in paperback
And also available at Red Hen Press