Reviewed by Ken Hada
This ekphrastic collection features 40 black and white photos by Alan Berner accompanied by Walter Bargen’s poetic responses. The photos show the “west as it is today” while Bargen’s poetry describes the “transformation” of the west (back cover). The photos seem to lead this project with the poems serving to echo and interpret. Berner’s photography wonderfully captures images that many of us would overlook. His eye for juxtaposition of the elegiac with the contemporary is uncanny. At times, his photographs reveal outright contradiction. Consider, for example, the scene titled “Dennis Rodman at Mount Rushmore” where the photograph captures the over-sized face of the sometimes controversial NBA star worn on the back of a tee shirt as the wearer of the shirt stands gazing at the famous images of the presidents carved in stone (64-65). The multiple layers beg interpretation. Throughout the book, Berner’s careful framing of apparent and discordant images, along with Bargen’s insightful responses, confirms that the American West, as always, continues to lie just beyond the reach of our rational control.
The book is introduced by Bargen, a five-part prose piece that clues the reader to a western road trip that moves swiftly through Oklahoma, spends considerable time in New Mexico, and finds alluring, contradictory images throughout several western states, including Arizona, Nevada, Montana, Idaho, Washington and South Dakota. There is a wonderful balance of rural and urban images, as well as an artistic blending around natural wonders, like the Grand Canyon, balanced with an unknown street in some little western town. Thankfully, the authors take the readers to various places in ways that the average tourist would overlook. In doing so, they capture a thought-provoking blend of the tragic and the comedic. Though the book captures residual effects of the American West, mostly framed in nostalgic decorum, clothing and artifacts from a time that precedes us, it also helps to reshape our understanding of the present, perplexing and complex as it is. For example, consider the scene titled “Apology” where an American flag blows in the uninterrupted horizon near White Sands, New Mexico, alongside a protest banner that reads “We’re sorry about Hiroshima and Nagasaki” (54).
The reader is also considerably helped by the eight-page index of “Images and Captions” at the end of the book. Here important information concerning location and event of the photos is succinctly provided. In his introduction, Bargen alludes to the mythical power of the American West, summarizing a 19th century German author, Karl May, who wrote of the American West though he never made it past Buffalo, New York (12). Bargen notes that “tens of thousands” attend a festival in his honor (12), despite the illusionary (if not delusional) rendering of something that never was. This book is one in an increasing library of works that underscore the silliness that often accompanies our predetermined desires to glorify the American West. Even the world beyond American borders often eagerly gulps these fantasies. This reference to May links the photographer and poet to the German, for the book is also translated into the German language – the structure being, English on one column, German translation in the accompanying column, both serving to echo the photographs.
Bargen’s phrasing nicely ties the photographs to the reader’s potential understanding. Some examples include:
“The applause of buttes, cheers of mesas,/ deafening beyond belief” (23)
“The train’s sweet blur so convincing” (25)
“This is the hole we dig for ourselves” (41)
“As sunlight races the rails” (59)
“The twitching of eternity” (73)
“The dust of history never settles” (77)
“Cowboys ride hard into the bronzed sunset” (79)
“Run down by the horizon” (91)
The phrasing of the poet makes the ekphrastic poetry work, makes the collaboration complete – a two-step dance, photo and response.
The first photo of the collection displays Native teepees against the modern Seattle skyline, a stark rejoinder of then and now. The last photo of the work shows a Santa Fe landfill where modern appliances litter the desert, suggesting the American West is a dumping ground for our ill-gotten affluence. This last photo offers an ominous feeling, as if we still don’t know what to do with our space, what to do with ourselves. Clearly the work of Bargen and Berner, and the thoughtful structuring by Wolfgang Wallner, fulfills the first phrase of the first poem: “The West was in us” (14).
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 17, Issue 3.
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