A Favorite Poet and His Images

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Poetic and photographic images seem to emerge from, among other things, an insistent focus on presences, and sometimes, absences. When I think of poems that share an effortless kinship with photography, I recall the French poet, Jean Follain. He was alive for three-fourths of the twentieth century, which means he witnessed much, including the two World Wars with their unending procession of tragedies.

Hard as it is to ever commit to a “favorite” poet, Jean Follain might be one of mine. I first learned about him from a mentor when I was beginning to write poetry, and his poems showed me that it okay to write the kind of short, image-based poems that I was writing then. Most of his poems are studies in clarity and modesty, unfolding in a single stanza of about ten shortish lines. Follain’s poems track the magic and subtle gravity of the world as it is, and as it unfolds.

Here is a poem of Follain’s, translated from the French by W.S. Merwin:

THE STUDENTS’ DOG

The students play at breaking the ice
on a path
near the railroad
they have been wrapped up warm
in old dark woolens
and belted in with bossed leather
the dog that follows them
no longer has a bowl for his late meals
he is old
their age.

We can imagine the first seven lines of the poem as a photographic image. Perhaps we see, in the mind’s eye, a still of children in motion. They kick the ice, or maybe pick at it with bent tree branches. They are simultaneously engaged and idle. We assume that those “old dark woolens” reflect all the quiet care and concern of the parental figure who secured them.

If this poem were a photograph, we might see the children arrayed along the railroad, and we might see “the dog that follows them” somewhere in the left or right of the frame, drifting into the background. But those final lines tell us, with quiet insistence, what a photograph would suggest in its own way. The dog may be stray, existing on the edge of human habitation. Perhaps he chose this life, but he may have been cast out, since he “no longer has a bowl for his late meals.” The shortness of his lifespan (he is likely to become “absent” before they do) compared with the length of the students’ is a stark reminder of mortality, while the simultaneity of children’s youth and the dog’s old age reminds us that they both possess kinds of knowledge, and ways of knowing, that are often ignored in the kingdom of adults. This is something that binds them.

The photograph “Stray Dog, Misawa” is by Daido Moriyama.

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