Before reading this week’s poem by Emily Hasler, it’s worth taking a look at a potted biography of its subject, Eadweard Muybridge. A Wikipedia entry pins down a life as blocky, jerky segments, the way animals are captured in Muybridge’s photographs. Hasler’s skill is to gesture at the emptiness between the images; an unsettling absence that hovers on the borders of art’s ability to contain and relive experience.
The Animal in Motion
on Eadweard Muybridge
Those poor hostages, trapped in their sequential cells;
forced to walk or run, to climb, to sit then stand,
stand then sit. How miserable the captive animal is,
worried away – till they lose hair, presence, weight –
with the fret of knowing they are being watched.
Their every moving part dissected. It seems a wonder
anyone does anything. Reduced to one action the body
strains to bend and lift, to step from the frame.
Beyond the frame: the black that is non-happening.
Deep as a canyon, what it is between. A space
with the capacity of sleep, the near darkness of a blink.
Barely noticed and then dismissed. The moment
is neither metrical nor imperial, neither ends nor begins.
Each step’s a crime: the before and after and frontier within.
If Hasler’s poem is ‘on Muybridge’, not on Muybridge’s art, then it’s partly an exploration of the artist as framer; and though it doesn’t dwell on the shadier details of its subject’s life, there’s a sense in which he, too, is being set up for the mug-shot. We don’t see the photographer, but we see his ‘hostages’, ‘trapped’, ‘forced’ and ‘captive’; the vocabulary of a sadistic zookeeper. The zoopraxiscope Muybridge invented created for the first time the illusion of a moving image, but Hasler’s grammar focuses on the awkward separateness of each action – ‘to sit then stand,/stand then sit’. The line-break contributes to this slicing up of lived experience.
Being preserved for posterity is a drawn-out ritual to be endured, a form not of resurrection but dissection. We think of the advent of motion photography as bringing the past back to life, perhaps not questioning too much where its early subjects wanted to stay dead. The poem won’t let what ‘seems a wonder’ be a wonder, carrying on between the sixth and seventh line to raise what’s either the incomprehensibility of motion, when broken down to its component parts, or the question of who would submit their lives to such scrutiny. The image is a prison which constrains the energy of its subject.
Something about all this speaks to what poetry does (and did, before photography). To entertain an old-fashioned idea, each poem is the repository of an experience which, on each reading, can be lived again; the words on the page replay the transient human moment, even at centuries’ distance. By foregrounding the stilted, voyeuristic aspects of the gaze of Muybridge’s camera, I wonder if Hasler is asking how healthy or edifying it really is for a moment in which one participates to be prolonged beyond its time. If taking a photograph causes ‘fret’, worry, misery, there’s something uneasy about the way the poem replicates that process of repeated capture.
The structure of this sonnet also points cleverly towards the physical presence of Muybridge’s strips of film. After eight lines there is a blank space – white, not black – following which, the focus changes. But here Hasler explores what Muybridge doesn’t, or couldn’t. The concrete animal details of the first stanza – ‘hair, presence, weight’ – have been lost, like those real physical elements whose image lives on , to be replaced by the abstraction of ‘non-happening’ and words which, like the black space, are conjunctions – ‘beyond’, ‘between’, ‘before and after’.
The word order of line 10 is like a picture jolting; ideas blink in and out, flicking past the corners of our understanding. The last three lines present ‘the moment’ as something indefinable, subject to no categorization or reduction, ever-present and yet somehow never really there. Then back to the physical – a ‘step’, a ‘crime’ – which brings us to consider Muybridge’s, takes us over the frontier into the world beyond as the poem slips out of shot. Hasler ends with a rhyme, but it doesn’t quite line up. We started in an external world where every action can be pinned and labeled; we end ‘within’, far from that precision, no longer sure where anything belongs.
I found Hasler’s poem in the most recent issue of Transom, a great webzine whose interviews with its contributors, many of whom were disappointed at the lack of close-reading for contemporary writing, gave me this idea to start this website. More of, and on, her work is available here.