DUET - Poet & Photographer (Book Review)

Photography by Leo Touchet (Breaux Bridge, Louisiana)
Photo Circle Press, 2018. Pp. 51. $17.50. Paperback

Louisiana Literature – Volume 222

by John Zheng

Duet: Poet & Photographer is a conversation of poems and photographs by Elizabeth Burk and Leo Touchet. Burk is a psychologist who has published two fine poetry chapbooks, Learning to Love Louisiana and Louisiana Purchase; Touchet is a self-taught photographer who has published photographs in Life, Time, Fortune, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Oxford American and books of photography including Rejoice When You Die: The New Orleans jazz Funerals. The collaboration of this creative couple resulted in a fascinating book of 23 stunning black and white photographs accompanied by 23 exceptional ekphrastic poems. In her preface, Burk says that this book represents, for us, art in conversation-we are not only collaborators in life and marriage, we are also now collaborators in co-creating an art form. These photographs and poems, says Touchet in his preface, have equal value.

As a visual person, Touchet believes that a photograph is worth a thousand words. Cypress Trees in Lake, taken at Atchafalaya Basin Swamp in Louisiana, is like an animated image that requires the viewer to take time to consider the ingredients of its composition. Here the empty space fills the center and the two cypress trees are positioned on either side to create a perfect duet or balance through the touching of their limbs hung with Spanish moss. The third tree, a smaller one or simply a trunk, does not look like an unwanted intrusion but like an inseparable connection between the two trees. The trees' reflections in the water function as necessary foreground to enhance the composition while the horizontal line of the lakeshore functions as uncluttered background. Because the darker image of the trees is set against the gray lake and sky, the scene catches a surreal moment of the natural world and thus reinforces an eerie atmosphere.

While Toucher's photograph presents his interpretation of a scene in nature through his powerful grasp of tonal range, Burk's Hush over Atchafalaya, which goes with the photograph, enlivens the photograph with vivid images of wildlife. She becomes a nature watcher and tells about a southern world shared by both human beings and wildlife:

                      Beyond the ragged camp
                                     a sagging wooden plank stretches back
                      into the swamp. It is barely dusk, heat melts from
                                          the day, the moisture clings. A weathered outboard

                     motor murmurs its way through the murky waters
                                     of the bayou. A white heron on the shore watches,
                      still as dawn; dragonflies hover above. Two baby beavers
                                          peer from their hiding place inside a hollow log.

                      Around a bend, the river widens,
                                     massive trees trunks rise from the water, ancient limbs
                      hang heavy with moss. Alligators glide by, grinning
                                          jaws skim the water's surface, their scaly bodies submerged.

                      Silvery cypress stumps poke through stagnant waters
                                     like fixed bayonets, ghosts of a forgotten war.
                      In the river's reflections, a hidden universe beckons
                                          as the boat slips through the channel leaving no trace.

However, it is interesting to note that Burk's Hush over Atchafalaya is not exactly an ekphrastic poem on Toucher's Cypress Trees in Lake. Burk often shares with her husband poems she-has written. When reading Hush over Atchafalaya, Touchet responds, I have just the photograph to go with that poem. It is a good match. In Burk's words, it is ekphrasis in reverse. This poem is a narrative composed of four quatrains. The poet releases her imagination on a swamp tour. If Touchet's photograph depends on the natural imagery chosen by him, Burk's poem relies on the creative working of poetic imagination. In other words, what Touchet sees through his lens and what Burk sees through her mind's eye are not boundaries but jumping stones for their creative and artful expressions respectively, showing their aesthetic experiences gained from their encounter with nature.

Mesquite Flats Dunes is another stunning photograph captured through Touchet's keen eye. Taken in Death Valley National Park in 1996, this black and white photograph is erotic and evocative. The high-contrast image enhances the shapes of the windswept sand dunes that arouse an imagination of a feminine body (a bare breast, a buttock or a reclining back represented by the white part of the shapes) and of a low-cut dress, a robe or a cover represented by the black part of the shapes. One characteristic of this visual image is that it possesses a constant flow of consciousness through associative thinking that juxtaposes the image with desire, peace, and action. Viewing it and giving it a moment to imagine is an aesthetic experience to gain an appreciation of art through the working of eye and mind. If it were a color print, it might lose the impressive quality of associative thinking caused by the high contrast of black and white.

Burk's poem, Desire, interprets Toucher's Mesquite Flats Dunes in an imagistic way. It possesses the same quality of tension between the shapes, the colors, the reality and imagination:

                                Cover my moonstone body
                                                     with your obsidian grace
                                        bend, blend, dissolve me
                                                               into the heat of desire
                                                   before the wind scatters our particles
                                                                          reconfigures us

In the first stanza, the poet visualizes the high contrast of sand dunes as a woman with a moonstone body and a cover of obsidian grace. The use of personification to humanize the sand dunes as a body to be covered with grace progresses smoothly into actions of love in the second stanza-bending, blending and dissolving into the heat of desire. And the third stanza gives an urgency. Time waits for no one, and the moment of nowness must be grasped before the body is scattered into sand particles and reconfigured by wind. Desire is a well-imagined ekphrastic poem. On the surface, it offers an interpretation of the photograph with a focus on the personified sand dunes, but behind it is the human desire aroused by nature and by art forms gained from nature. This binding of the external images and the internal desire makes the poem exceptional.

Ekphrasis is not just a poetic description or representation inspired by a piece of visual arts; more importantly but also a continuation through the play of imagination or the interplay of visual art and language art. It is a genre that involves the poet's reflection on a piece of art, rearrangement of images, and recounting of imagination through narration. Touchet captures the moments in time that exert visual effects through his photographs, and Burk grasps a good understanding of ekphrasis through her interpretation and imagination, and their works in Duet should suffice.

John Zheng

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