A writer in Russia recently got in touch with me via the email address she found at my personal blog, The Drift Record, to ask a favor. She needed a poem sent to her, one I was not actually familiar with, though I had written about the author of the poem, Nelson Bentley, in one of my previous blog posts. The Russian writer had been unable to find a copy of the book which the poem she wanted appeared in, but she knew I had a copy because the poem I had written about – “Zero Tide” – is in the same book. She asked if I would be willing to send her the poem “Atget’s Lens”?
What a thrill, to get a request like that from someone I didn’t know in a part of the world I’ve never been to. Such an unexpected, lovely connection! I had met Nelson Bentley decades earlier when he taught at the University of Washington – he let me sit in on a few of his classes while I was deciding whether or not to finish my B.A. in Creative Writing. He was a kind and popular professor, a colleague of Theodore Roethke, and much loved. His death not long after that, at the relatively young age of 72, meant I never got to study with him, but I admired his work. So I found the book – Sea Lion Caves – and typed “Atget’s Lens” out and sent it on across the miles to be translated by this new Russian acquaintance.
“Atget’s Lens” is a complicated poem that I hadn’t remembered, but after finding it again and typing it out, I was startled by how lovely it is, how beautifully Bentley handled the formal restrictions, and by how difficult it would be to translate, due to its compressed syntax.
Not only was I drawn to the poem, I was drawn to its subject. Atget was a French photographer who pioneered the new field of documentary photography in the early years of the 20th century. I have several postcards of his work, which focused primarily on street scenes in a Paris that Atget felt was slipping from view. His work was not well received while he was alive; it was only after his death, when the New York photographer Berenice Abbott championed it, that the value of his photographic documentation of a bygone Paris was recognized.
Atget lived and worked at the turn of the century; half a century later, an English professor in Seattle wrote a poem about him; decades after that, I wrote about that professor; and a year after that, a Russian writer wrote to me about the professor. From Atget to Bentley to me to Russia – like depot stops on a strange and wonderful train ride.
So if you’re feeling a little burnt out on blog posts, as we all do at times, I’m writing this to encourage you to keep it up. Someone might get in touch with you years from now and say “I just read you blog post, and I’m wondering if you could do me a favor….” And you’ll become another stop on a journey that connects one artist to another and another. Meanwhile, here is the poem I sent across the sea. In it, Bentley mentions many of the subjects of Atget’s photographs. Hope you enjoy it:
Final turning of a place to poem,
A lone vision to a textured home,
And look to book;
Who’d think to find you in a photograph,
Perfectly quiet in the arrested chaff :
A love that took?
A lettered wagon tired in early light,
A snarling knocker that will never bite,
Answer for an old brown grateful Paris
That entered intact the rare, knowing iris
Of Atget’s lens.
A peddler sedate on steep-slanted bricks,
Trees waving in twenty great gold clocks,
Dummies proud stance :
All waited for James’ pen or Atget’s mounts.
It’s the selection of which love counts,
The surest glance.
City and heart sings this humble realm,
An ardor that clears away the film.
Order is all;
Its constant surprise is where it will appear,
Implying the search that makes an atmosphere
Or a total.
– Nelson Bentley