Nonfiction Review by Paul Franz

Sean Howard, The Photographer’s Last Picture (Kentville: Gaspereau, 2016). Paperbound, 378 pp., $29.95.

The Photographer's Last PictureWhat does one say about a book so singularly defeated by its premise? The question is one this latest collection by Sean Howard, a poet and professor of political science at Cape Breton University, seems determined to make obtrusive. The hints it contains of the fresher work it might have been are far from redeeming, though they lend it a certain pathos. They have the advantage, at any rate, of differing from the mode of redemption-by-defeat that it seems to court, as if it would make itself an allegory for the historical tragedy of obsessiveness and determinism it describes. To say they suggest an alternative to the book’s own logic is emphatically to concede that it has a logic, which it pursues with considerable willfulness. As for whether to prefer the consistency or the exception—readers will have to make up their own minds.

As the jacket copy explains: “Sean Howard has written twenty poems inspired by photographs he discovered in a tattered copy of Collier’s Photographic History of the European War (1916).” These, however, make up a small fraction of the book’s more than 350 handsomely mounted pages. Instead, each poem comes at the end of what is essentially a chapter, beginning with one of Collier’s photographs, followed by passages in prose. First comes a paragraph in italics (perhaps simulating notebook cursive) responding directly to the image, then a more open-ended set of reflections, typically incorporating quotations and Howard’s commentary on this research. The conceit is partly that of the darkroom, as each photograph “slowly develops” into a poem, but Howard also tells us it is “akin to, and inspired by, the associative amplification of dream imagery and symbolism.” The process, we understand, is to reveal something latent in both the image and our collective psyche.

There is some tension between these two guiding conceptions. The associative technique is somewhat like collage, as disparate snippets are brought together to compose new images. In another respect, however, the darkroom analogy is more exact. Though variable doses of chemicals introduce an element of contingency, what they reveal is something already having occurred: the mixture of choice and chance in the light inscribed on the negative. The contingency is limited, in other words, by something predetermined. You could say, in a similar way, that the problem with Howard’s book is not that it is too associative, but not associative enough. What the photographs prompt are reflections about “history and memory.” The theorists dutifully wheeled on stage—Benjamin, Foucault—tend to be those ready to hand for anyone who has spent time in a social science or humanities department of the last three decades. The choice of poets and other writers for mining—David Jones, Wilfred Owen, the once recherché but now disquietingly resurgent Ernst Jünger—is barely less predictable. The cumulative effect is of a punishingly repetitive determinism. By the time we get to the poems—when we are hoping for a breath of air—we find they have little to say but the same thing once over, with greater constriction: “History— / Opera of the /Phantom // Wagner―Hitler, / conducting the / dead // Faustian fusion— / humanic, plan- / kind.” And again, “Hiroshima― / Somme / Encore! // Shell-hole― / begging / bowl // Nazi xylophone― / Goethe’s/ bones ... // Daily Basis―the / prosaic fucking / us all.” Or, as the last sequence sums things up, a few stanzas later: “Total War― / Fuck / All.

This poetry can be cited more or less at random, since it confines itself to the narrowest range. Its technique consists mainly of puns. These can feel either well or poorly motivated, but all tend relentlessly toward one end: the exposure of war as a dense nexus of violent psychosexual compulsion. Though this is served up as condemnation, the ascetic style will hardly elicit excitement from anyone not strongly invested in the words it splits and splices, with an obsessiveness the furthest thing from free association. It is hard to shake the impression, throughout, of an essentially prurient spectatorship―mainly because the book depends on it. This culminates in the title image, reproduced on its cover, which purports to depict the death of its own photographer, killed by a shell burst that hurled him in front of the lens at the moment of clicking the shutter. As is usual in such cases, the impression is not mitigated, but rather intensified, by the persistent predictable moralizing, here wearing the thin disguises of solemnity and a certain grim humour.

There remain one or two areas where the book shows promise of something better. The prose paragraphs in italics, the initial descriptions of the images, are consistently the most interesting passages in the book, and you are always disappointed the further Howard gets from them. Even in the passages that follow, however, Howard’s writing can still surprise when he hews closely to acts of looking. His verbal punning is tedious, but his visual puns can be witty or poignant―as when he allegorizes a line of infantry fading into the background as “The photograph depicting, right to left, the dissolution of The Soldier”: that is, of his individuality into the mass.

If this represents one form of occluded illumination, an anecdote near the beginning of the book is another. This is when Howard tells us, literally parenthetically, “(My father was a skilled machinist, making military helicopter engines [...]. One Sunday (I was ten?) he asked if I’d like to see inside. We walked hand-in-hand, no one else around, over the litter-strewn, dog-shitty grass, the steel wave looming up, cresting.)” Here, one feels, is the story about looking Howard really wants to tell: about a child’s desire to inspect the secret male world of machines and weapons, and his discovery that the path there leads through a waste. It is in such moments, or when Howard tells us about “my best friend,” a career soldier, “instinctively sacrificial, secretly shunning the realities he tirelessly improves for others; an artist without an art,” that we sense the background of personal experience casting a halo around these interests. These moments are vivid, but muted, kept in the background. In context, they make more palpable what one has already sensed: that the book’s clichéd associations, far from charting a new course through the unconscious, collective or otherwise, are so many shields set up around its more authentic and vulnerable subject matter.

There is a suggestion of something willful in this book’s weaknesses, as if it wished to assume the burden of everything it exhibits as indictable. But do we need this? Even at its most negative, an accomplished poem probably implies, in its imaginative energy, some sheer dogged hopefulness. We can only hope that in Howard’s next book he will trust more himself and his intuitions, and give us the story he seems to really want to tell; perhaps in prose.

—Paul Franz

As in The Malahat Review, 199, Summer 2017, 121-123