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Photo Postcards: Island Woman; Wish You Were Here; All Is Well

Photo Postcards: Island Woman

(late 1800s)

Look what he thinks he captured

to hold in his palm,
show-off like a tropical frog
and send back home,
souvenir in a square white box

women, all women
and particular to this palm-island heat
one woman
odalisque on his dirt studio floor

Perfect, he says,
black-white film loaded, tripod braced,
to his assistant

but shift her left breast, lift her skirt
press her legs knee to knee

He can’t wait to print these,
imagines them in storefronts in Paris,
living rooms in New York

Photo Postcard: Wish You Were Here

You can feel the blood
rushing into their hands
men, women, even children
tying the cottonwood air
into knots: whole families,
like a cousins’ picnic.
You can wince
at their spittle laughter,
strangle your own throat
on their anticipation.
Long and thick the rope
wraps the high branch
hoists the man
so everyone can see
and, as if a curtain lifts,
the photographer’s
shutter snaps.
“Edie’s photo,
Anadarko, Oklo”
white block letters
scratched into the metal plate
ride up the tree trunk,
“photo” nearly the full
length of the man.
Then the picture postcard,
dispersed by rail
through mountain tunnels
by trail over plains
by carriage coast to coast-
a longing,
wish you were
right here.

Bennie Simmons, alive,
soaked in coal oil
before being set on fire.
Try to imagine
the deliberate
to record this event:
it’s 1913, before snapshots,
before spontaneous film.
In the Oklahoma woods
next to a stream
they set the stage,
filled the fresh-air auditorium
with the whole town,
had themselves
another Friday.


Photo Postcard: All Is Well

Who knew this wordless
message would be the last
from the brother
now beardless, wire spectacled
with those hard-to-miss
ears, like the ones trying to hide
under the wide ribbon
in the young girl’s curls.
She would be his daughter,
and the woman his wife,
the three heads tilt, touch
their smiles slightly
wary, perhaps combative.
Who knew to read
the mute message,
who knew the unwavering gaze
was focused on fear?
A triangle of faces
rising from the foreground
a vague fog behind,
and the stamped name
of a long-gone photographer
in Smorgon.

Who knew that the sister
they struggled to send
to the other side,
all fancy dressed with a husband,
to their left an apple tree
belching with fruit,
behind them threads of ivy
climbing a white picket fence
paid an arm and a leg
to stand before this painted
canvas American dream
on a Sunday afternoon
in a fourth-floor studio
with streams of sunlight,
way up in the Bronx.


Denise Bergman (dhbergman [at] is the author of Seeing Annie Sullivan, poems based on the early life of Helen Keller’s teacher (Cedar Hill Books, 2005), and editor of City River of Voices, an anthology of urban poetry (West End Press, 1992). Her poems have been published widely.

2006, Volume 58, Issue 04 (September)
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