Strange and Wonderful Connections

Atget_-_Avenue_des_Gobelins

Eugene Atget – Window, Paris

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.

Nelson Bentley

Nelson Bentley in his office at the University of Washington

Atget - abbott_portrait

Portrait of Eugene Atget by Berenice Abbott

“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.

Eugène_Atget,_Street_Musicians,_1898–99

Eugene Atget – Street Musicians

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.

Atget - Church of St. Gervais

Eugene Atget – Church of St. Gervais

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:

Atget’s Lens

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,
Transformed tokens,
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

Atget - Door Knocker

Eugene Atget – Door Knocker

Atget - Street Peddler

Eugene Atget – Street Peddler

13 responses to “Strange and Wonderful Connections

  1. Julie, I just love this post! I have received so many emails from all points of the earth since starting No Water River — with so many different requests — and I love it every time it happens. The way you sum up your chain of events at the end — noting that it all began over a century ago — gave me chills. Atget’s photographs are stunning, as is Bentley’s poem. Thank you for this.

    • Renee, I know that it gives me a thrill to see your part of the Italian coast and think “Renee LaTulippe and her family are there!” This without our ever having met. Glad you liked the poem. – Julie

      • By “see your part of the Italian coast,” I mean on a map, of course. but I hope to get there one day – looking forward to a cup of coffee with you and meeting those boys of yours.

  2. Beautiful post on our inter-connectedness. I love that we have access to so much from so far away. I was unfamiliar with Bentley and Atget. Now I have a journey to embark on to get to know these artists. Thanks for providing a map.

  3. laurakvasnosky

    Primo. I love that you found Atget photos to
    go with the poem. And the idea of trainstops on the long line connecting creators over time and distance. Love that, too.

  4. I have a long-standing penpal relationship with a woman from New Zealand–all because of an overdue library book that was returned so late and we did some PR about it….which went out over the AP wire and was printed in a NZ paper…and she wrote me. We still correspond (by paper letter)!

  5. That’s exactly what I mean, Beth. I wonder if you’ll ever have a chance to meet….?

  6. Thank you, Julie, for continuing with blog-writing-rambling. I so enjoy reading your words, opening my eyes to new insights, new tiny wonders. I always end with a smile on my face that comes from the heart. Nancy

  7. I love this post and poem – thank you! The photos are just wonderful. I have similarly developed worldwide friendships from blog and website readers and commenters, and hope one day that we’ll actually meet.

    Way back in 2004, in Australia, I self-published/vanity published a picture book ‘Kangaroo’s Visitor Gets a Surprise’ (I didn’t know of other POD full-colour printers at that time). As a resource on my website, I include a simple stand-up model that can be cut and folded from thin card http://www.writing-for-children.com/kangathingstodo.html – so what a delightful surprise a few years later to be approached by a team from an Argentinian and a Detroit university asking for permission to include the design in their scientific/educational paper on teaching students the physiology of a hopping kangaroo’s breathing mechanism. So it now also appears in the Advances in Physiology Education journal of the American Physiology Society, with adaptations to help explain why kangaroos use less energy to breathe when hopping than when stationary. It’s actually an interesting paper encouraging teachers of all levels of students to make learning fun by including model making, and other strategies. http://advan.physiology.org/content/34/4/228.full-text.pdf+html#page

    • Kangaroos use less energy to breathe when hopping than when stationary????? What a strange, wonderful world it is!! thanks for sharing the link, Peter…and I’m glad you liked my post, too.

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