This complicated little book is actually two in one – a poem and an “overflowing” of the poem, a poem and its poetic exegesis. The first section is an ekphrastic poem written by Virginie Laluq and translated by Sylvain Gallais, written in response to a photograph of the Mexican guerilla and counterfeiter moments before his execution by firing squad. I have not seen this photograph (in fact, when I googled it while writing this, the page refused to respond, and asked me several times to “kill” the page), and it is not reproduced in the book, an important point I think for the approach to this poem. The second half of the book is a poetic exegesis by Lean-Luc Nancy, translated by Cynthia Hogue, in which the poem is reproduced page by page in whole or in excerpt followed by a close reading of the text. “The poem, its duplication, its overflowing.” It’s an astonishing work, and really so delightful that I can’t imagine why we don’t see more books of poems published alongside an exegesis.
The poem, already so fantastically explored within its own book, begins in a fairly typical ekphrastic mode, confronting and exploring the photograph. But it swiftly moves into something else, something more philosophical, perhaps, and certainly more interior. At some points the poetic voice is clearly Sámano’s, and then it shifts back to Lalucq, blurring the position of the poem between poet and subject, observer and observed, dead and living. Its form shifts over the course of the book, occasionally using slashes that editorially would represent elided line breaks, but which create a kind of jumpy staccato, mimetic of the click of the shutter over and over attempting to capture something in this moment that can still be seen by the poet, almost a hundred years later.
There are moments of exquisite detail in the poem, an examination of flowers on the ground, the wall behind Sámano. A photograph stops time, records it in a seemingly concrete way, extracts a moment from a continuum, merely implying the moments that precede and proceed from the captured one. A photograph is a kind of violence to the motion of time. A cutting off, as an execution cuts off a life, the trigger cuts of a continuation, the shutter cuts off the continuation. Poetry exists through time, and the expansion of a single frozen moment into a poem is one of the great feats of ekphrasis, because it creates a continuity that doesn’t exist in static representative art. And so Lalucq restores past and future to the eternal present of the photograph. More than that, she restores voice to the silencing of photography and execution, she restores action to the passive object, and interaction to the observed.
Fortino stares at the firing squad, the firing squad (we imagine) stares at Fortino. The camera is outside of this, staring only at Fortino. We, viewers from the perspective of the camera, are staring at Fortino, and the poem is staring with us, at Fortino. We are alienated in time, in attention, in space from the happening of the photograph. And so Lalucq does not merely (or even actually) describe the photograph, inscribing another representation of a representation of a moment of time. She explodes it, in time, in space, in person. The poem allows entry into the photograph, restoring immediately the movement of time, the movement of body, the movement of flowers. The poem restores our humanity in this way.
It is not a political poem, about the Mexican guerrilla fighters and their rightness or wrongness, about execution as a governmental practice, about even the ethics involved in photographing executions and then displaying them at museums for spectatorship and commentary. Rather it involves us in the experience of the image, the experience of the time of the image. She herself doesn’t know why.
Why do we see him, why do we feel the di-
rect intuition of simultaneity? Why when
I’m here — am I under bombs falling at
the same time on two separate stages?
Why this voice that seems to be asking,
“everything all right”?
The exegesis here expounds, explores further:
No one is quit of the question: where does this moment in the present and its spitting into two or more than two come from? Notice here that Virginie is speaking philosophy: “direct intuition of simultaneity.” … “Intuition” is the slippery word here that provokes such slipping, which “direct” anticipates in sharpening the cadence and striking a brisk beat before the sibilant hiss and sinuosity of the words that follow.
And so the poem’s overflow of theory leads me to think that these murmurs of concepts aren’t less audible in the philosophical text, despite all the efforts this text makes to resolve them into a composition of idealities.
The photograph overflows into the poem, the poem, which duplicates inaccurately (more accurately?) the photograph, overflows into the exegesis, which duplicates incompletely (more completely) the poem. The exegesis overflows into English, which duplicates the original poem which is an overflowing of the original unduplicated photograph (faithfully? as faithfully as the poem can duplicate the photograph into a new language of words), the unduplication of the poem, its overflow into the exegesis, adding another duplication to the chain. The exegesis is no longer the final word on the poem, it has itself overflowed and been duplicated. And it continues to overflow as I write this, this modest response is itself an overflowing of the chain of overflowings and duplications.
/ STOP / I’ll stop you / and in reverse / devour /
language / I’ll make you / speak / STOP / as
others / make one / sing /I won’t leave you /
alone / STOP / floor / by / floor / hard palate /
after / soft / STOP / I will make you speak
I must understand that, in effect, the poem — and this is why it overflows — makes us speak more than it says. … A poem that does nothing but speak in front of us and at us, without forcing us in turn to speak, has not overflowed and has missed the mark.
The philosophical exploration of the poem makes these gestures at times, to define what poetry is, as opposed to philosophy, how it comes into being, what its ends are. It does it compellingly through an exacting and nuanced, extremely attentive (almost ekphrastic) reading of the poem. This is a philosophical treatise on art that could not be read without the art it refers to, and becomes in that way an essential part of the art’s existence in the world. What I come away from this book most strongly with is a sense of the interdependency of these forms, of these voices, of theses overflowings. Art of any kind cannot be created without an overflowing that both precedes and follows it. Here we have the evidence of it, and so can go deeper ourselves into the experience of the poem which overflows in us, implicating us in its own creation.
If you feel the need to, look at the photograph. It’s in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, though not on display in the museum, it is available online. But try to wait until after you’ve finished the book. I did, and the book changed the way I engaged with the photograph.