The photographs. Wet mutilated heads
of Chinese raiders seeping cabbage-like
in a ditch, bodies dumped in river-weeds.
A girl’s gouged-out breasts, her grisly tight
agonized grin as blades gored her. Filling
long nights leafing attic shelves I’d stare
at the fleshly fine-edged craft of killing—
fiery pain in the likeness of prayer—
for only what was sinister felt also sacred.
What was my father’s God if not of this?
Engravings, too, of gibbet-strung tortured
Jews, of witches carved until confessed;
like anyone, I lived in fear, believing still
in dreams: evil seemed ever undone in truth
or illusion alike; there was no finished evil.
We had only faith to harden us here on earth.
Questions and Answers
What inspired “Images”?
This poem is excerpted from a book-length sequence of poems about Harry Houdini, the escape artist. Houdini, who risked his life nightly on stage, was fascinated by death and suffering. He kept a collection of “snuff” photographs in his library at home and would stare at them often, late into the night. I wanted to write some of that cruelty into the book, and found it playing off against the shadow of his father’s faith. His father, a rabbi, had died when Houdini was just a boy. All of these things were threading their way through the poem.
What poetic techniques did you use in “Images”?
I needed a strong sense of order or shapeliness to the piece because of the chaos and horror being recounted. Which isn’t to say the quatrains and alternating rhymes were there from the beginning—in my experience, form is something stumbled upon or suggested by the poem as it comes into its own. In this case the final lines rhyming truth/earth developed early in the writing and the shape began to emerge as a result. I knew in the final line I wanted to extend the pentameter out into six feet to give a sense of closure to the poem, but also to echo the grand hexameters of classical verse. I wanted that final line to step decisively away from the personal, into the public. Syntax was important to the poem, the way that the sentence filled out the end of the line or rolled through an enjambment. I remember wrestling with the shifts there. That sense of line integrity, the stillness that a self-enclosed line captures. I find poets often point with pride to things in their poems that seem trivial or miniscule to the poem as a whole but that are great victories for them as poets. The syntactical wholeness closing the second and fourth stanzas in this poem were victories for me.