Thursday, 1 February 2018

The Blind Musician and the Voyeurs 6

André Kertész: Accordionist 1916

Here we have jumped back in time some thirty years from one war to the one that preceded it, from the latter stages of the Second World War to the middle of the First in 1916. It is a photograph much written about and occupies an important place in Geoff Dyer’s fine book about photography, The Ongoing Moment. I wrote a short sequence of poems about some Kertész photographs, including this one, ‘The Accordionist’:

The Accordionist

The accordionist is a blind intellectual
carrying an enormous typewriter whose keys
grow wings as the instrument expands into a tall
horizontal hat that collapses with a tubercular wheeze.

My century is a sad one of collapses.
The concertina of the chest; the tubular bells
of the high houses; the flattened ellipses
of our skulls that open like petals.

We are the poppies sprinkled along the field.
We are simple crosses dotted with blood.
Beware the sentiments concealed
in this short rhyme. Be wise. Be good.

But the accordionist is not blind. Dyer quotes the first verse of the poem and notices this. He says:

“The accordion, it seems, is such a potent symbol of sightlessness as to blind us – I too had assumed he was blind – to the real condition of the person playing it” and then refers to a 1959 photo by Kertész of a blind accordionist in New York as well as to other photographs of possibly blind accordionists by Ben Shahn and Walker Evans. For me, I suppose, the photograph’s undercurrents lay in the date, 1916. Once again the document served as more than document: it was a harbinger of sorts. The bombed landscape in the poem resembles a collapsed accordion, skulls turn into poppies and something is undermining the ready-made sentiments we apply to the war, the very sentiments that are “concealed in this short rhyme”.

Kertész’s career started in the First World War and established him as one of the great innovators of photography. He learned a great deal from Lartigue, but extended the joy and light of Lartigue into the melancholy, dark comedy of the Hungarian condition. In order to explore this I want to introduce two more Kertész poems, based on his work of this early period.

Here is the first, from a series of photograph-poems commissioned, once again, by the Barbican Gallery at the time of their In the Face of History: In Time of War exhibition of 2006 (I wrote and recorded twelve poems for it, the poems appearing in The Burning of the Books (2009).

André Kertész: Latrine 1915

Kertész: Latrine

Four poilus in a wood austerely shitting.
Death watches them, laughing, its sides splitting.
Life is a cry followed by laughter. The body before, the waste after.

Could one hear in that wood the gentle click
of the shutter like the breaking of a stick
or the safety catch on its climacteric?

Like the four winds. Like a low fart that rips
clean air in two, like urine that drips.
Four squatting foot soldiers of the Apocalypse.

Kiss them lightly, faint breeze in the small leaves,
be the mop on the brow, the sigh that relieves.
Let them dump and move on into the dark plate
of the unexposed future, too little and too late.

The photograph suggests comedy and tragedy at once. It is like the comic scenes in the tragedies of Shakespeare: the porter in Macbeth or the Fool in Lear. It is as if the mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were shown preparing for their more savage, darker roles in World War 1 by taking, what W H Auden called, ‘a good dump’. These soldiers are less lyrical than Escher’s 1940 trooper about to set off to a briefly recovered homeland: they are knockabout figures, bowling pins lined up on what appears to be a fallen tree trunk while Kertész, himself a soldier, was lugging his heavy photographic equipment around with him like a sui generis war photographer.

André Kertész: Self portrait, Görtz, 1914

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