Saturday, January 11, 2014



catch light by Sarah O’Brien
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2009)

At first sight this first full-length collection of poetry is all about photography. Its neat packaging, eye-catching cover and interior layout all play to this theme. On close inspection, however, it is also about illusion and reality and how we see ourselves and others from the perspective of the camera.

The poems are divided into seven sections covering topics such as light, optics, photography and the camera.

Photographs can be so evocative. For one thing, they can bring a memory back to life. O’Brien recognizes this and uses it as the key with which to open this sequence of poems:

Memory is in light. It is often the most
       crystalline thing. An untuned        shift,
there where your hair was struck and above your skull
caught the light resting
       it spun blonde weather.

It gets in everywhere.

Light and movement are celebrated in the next few poems. In one poem it is the play of shadow puppets in front of a projector and in another it is the strobe effect of light and shade against a backdrop of trees when travelling fast on the road. The blinding effect of light is portrayed in another poem:

Light where there shouldn’t be light. And then you’re blind. A person

       walks past and a face is almost seen but for the sun in it and yours.

Sometimes O’Brien surprises us with the way she sees things almost in reverse to what we would expect:

Something when you come home and flick the switch

and see the room all at once, a little pop, the dark going out.

The section headed “Captions” has a blank frame, rectangle or square, above the caption leaving the reader to exert his or her own imagination as to the photograph that might lie within. Some of the captions make it hard to envisage what would be in the frame, they filter out so much that is concrete and end up dealing with the abstract:

-a world that goes on for miles but is too far off to make much impression

-a face that is light erased

-a city that remains behind trees

-talk about an imminent snowstorm: an instant that has never been captured on film.

If this seems to speak about moments that can never be captured, there are other instances in this sequence where scenes have been captured and held in perpetuity:

A man went walking across this field years ago and still he disappears down the horizon with a machine that clicks off every mile. A storm permanently poised on the edge of the field, made of cloud and settling sun.

The dichotomy of the man walking and the machine clicking pitched against a storm that never breaks but is always on the point of breaking creates a feeling of tension and unease which is skillfully handled here.

The opening poem in the next sequence, "Five Eyes," with its reference to glass eyes, expresses so well what the blank frames were all about in the previous sequence:

…Even when there’s nothing to see

we’d still like the possibility of seeing it.

The art of seeing is reliant upon distance. Things that come closer are less distinct. We talk so much about seeing things in perspective. What we see alters in time and space.

There must be distance, he said,

for the thing to be seen. So I hold you out from me and say now -

let me look at you.

Sometimes what we think we see is not what is really there at all:

The most common eye color is brown. But upon closer inspection, you said, I see streaks of green and gold.

The titles of the poems in the final sequence, "A Manual of Photography," were inspired by a reading of Black and White Photography: A Basic Manual by Henry Horenstein. In this section, the power of the photograph comes to the fore. In "Chapter 6: The Negative," for example, there is a reference to cultures where to take a photograph is to rob someone of their soul:

In some cultures, photographs are terrifying things.

Similarly, in "Chapter 7: The Print" the mystery of the process of development comes to life in words which convey the drama of it all:

The photograph coming up from the chemical, a face, a fiction, all of us now still in our skin. Hello, I’ve been looking for you.

This is a book that sticks to its subject matter in earnest exploring as it does, so many different avenues emanating from the subject of light. Not surprisingly, the book was a competition winner in the National Endowment of the Arts National Poetry Series, 2008. It scores high marks for ingenuity and bears the mark of an emerging poet with an original voice.


Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna published by White Adder Press, Scotland (2011) and The Worcester Fragments published by Original Plus, England (2013).

1 comment:

  1. Another view is offered by Eileen Tabios in GR #18 at