ABCs of Poetry: X is for Xray

Posted by on Jun 3, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: X is for Xray

A few years ago I became interested in the artist Man Ray’s camera-less photographs of the early 1920s. Like many of the budding Dadaists, he tried out several types of media – painting, sculpture, as well as photography. He also had to earn a living, which he did with his portraiture and fashion photography. One day, by accident, Mr. Ray placed a glass funnel and a thermometer on photographic paper. This was definitely an accident; his valuable supply of paper was dwindling and he did not need to waste it. But he switched on an electric light and exposed the paper. Images of the objects emerged. Light was refracted through the glass,  yet stopped by the solidity of the materials, so the shapes turned up white where they sheltered the paper against the black of total exposure.  He slipped the new creations into a packet of fashion shots and brought them to Paul Poirier, the great fashion designer, who somewhat reluctantly took them and passed them along the artistic pike. A genius of artistic self-promotion, Man Ray called these pieces “Rayographs.”

He went on to play with this new medium by taking objects and puting them together so they made their own connections with each other. We see the results. A wire fan makes concentric circles of white on black combined with metal springs and a flat ribbon of a yardstick. Human faces touch their lips together as models lay their cheeks on paper.  A wood and iron hand drill pierce a cloud of a circle, in white against black, the hard metal twist positioned to seem as though inserted into soft fruit.

These days, we are used to seeing X-rays of our own insides. Break a bone, and an X-ray will locate the fracture in a tibia. Even if only at a dentist’s office, we are allowed to see our interiors. Like an X-ray of a giant goat’s stomach after it has devoured an indigestible meal, a Rayograph displays its contents in reverse: white against black. Like bones in an X-ray, the hard parts stand out while the soft matter melts away. Flesh, which acts as padding, a bag full of the liquid of blood and plasma, becomes transparent. Skin, the only layer of a body which can normally be seen, reveals its true nature as a mere cover, a blanket for what lies beneath.  An X-ray can beam through all that, until it is stopped by bone. 

We do not really know what lies beneath this cover of skin.  Assume an ignorance of what lies beneath. Epidermis, callous and scar mask our muscles and sinews and the ultimate bones of our skeletons. All that is inside us is hidden. This is the point in the analogy where the X-ray and the Rayograph part ways.  An X-ray is a picture of inside us. We do not take pieces from outside, set them into our cavities, arrange them. Our inner workings stay put, inside us, without our conscious handling of them.

And I would go so far as to say that our insides are supposed to be hidden. We are told to not cut ourselves open. Don’t break the skin.  What is there, is there. It is what it is. And sometimes, what is inside us calls out. It calls out in the language of poetry.

One day, a person wants to write a poem.  She would like to find hummingbirds flittering among hollyhocks. But on this particular day, in order to write that poem, she would have to put flowers and pretty insects on a piece of photographic paper and expose them to light. That particular garden cannot be found, even if the weather seems perfect for it. Sunshine falls on a golden field. But a chill runs in her bones. At the edge of that field stands a house. On the roof of the house perch six large dark birds. All she can see are the dark birds on the Victorian roof. Closer inspection from a safe distance shows a hole in the roof where rotten beams have given way.

The person stands transfixed at the edge of the field, wondering if emergency medical personnel have been dispatched. The vultures have called out. Something not-beautiful inside requests a showing; wants to be revealed,  exposed,  as certainly as if the sun or a ceiling light shines on it.

But who knows that, if one cannot see inside? The vultures may simply station themselves on the highest perch around, so they can see over the fields in case some animal has already fallen. They aren’t birds of prey, and will hurt no one.  Perhaps there’s nothing in the house to be terrified of. I am telling a narrative, that’s all. The words float on the page.

Words in a poem float on skin. They refer to a point underneath. The skin need not, should not be broken.  Maybe a scratch or two might be okay.  But the flesh should not be hacked at, like some amateur surgeon. One should allow words to suspend and refer through the top layer. If one has a hand drill, don’t let it pierce. Lay it on a piece of paper and admire it for what it is.

It may just be an object, this drill, this vulture, this hollyhock. Or it may expose itself as something more personally compelling. No one knows until the words sit on top of the paper what they refer to inside. Here is why a poem is an X-ray, though sometimes it’s a Rayograph. Usually, it’s better for writer and reader alike if it’s an X-ray.

Jeanne DeLarm writes from a house built by a ship captain in 1853 in a Connecticut shore town.  She received an MFA from Fairfield University. Her poems have been published in various journals, one being nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Currently she works on a novel.