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Images From the Darkroom

WHEN the door shut behind us, all was dark. I always stood still and allowed him to enter first, finding his way to the opposite corner where a light cord dangled. After all, I thought, it was his room, his dark.

Then there'd be an eruption of light, sudden as lightning - and in the weak amber glow of the safelamp, my father would begin his darkroom routine. At age eight, I felt it a privilege to be allowed into his photographic inner sanctum and I knew enough to stand back a bit and simply watch him work - preparing the negatives, mixing chemicals, filling the white pewter trays.

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He placed a negative in the enlarger, focusing the watery image until it held still on the frosted glass. Then he'd slip a large sheet of photographic stock from the pack and position it to receive the print. A quick exposure, and he'd usher the blank paper to the chemical bath, sloshing the pan from side to side. Looking up at him, I saw that one half of his face glowed amber and, like the moon, the other half was eclipsed in shadow.

Only then would he motion me to step close. On tiptoe, I'd look into the tray and there, right before my eyes, I'd see faces growing slowly out of the emptiness. Smiles and waving hair, arms and legs outstretched. Again and again, in crisp black-and-white delineation, I'd witness my family, my memory materializing in the photographs.

The imagery of photographs became part of the vocabulary of my youngest imagination. My father's photos combined the skilled edge of the artist with the spontaneity and playfulness of the casual shutterbug. I remember countless weekend mornings, when my parents were still upstairs asleep, I'd drag cartons full of photographs from the living room credenza and sort through them as if they were a giant unbound storybook. Some faces and scenes were familiar - Grandpa standing beside his great humpbacked Buick, sisters dressed in fancy gowns for a dance or a wedding. Others were foreign and a bit other-worldly, tiny glimpses of lives I could only assume were in some way tied to mine.

I'd stare for long stretches into the inky eyes and shadowy gestures of these people, letting my imagination reveal their stories. Some inexplicably frightened me, and others became favorites. Long after my father died, his photographs still told and retold the story of my family. When I was 18 and leaving for college and my family was preparing to sell our house and move, it was to the cartons of photographs that I returned one last time to carry off a handful of essential fragments of family history that I needed to possess.

Today I teach students, young and old, to write poetry, to use language as a tool for exploring, recapturing and even transforming their experience. And looking for new writing exercises that would carry my students' imaginations to a deeper questioning, I began to think about my old photographs. The family album is a gallery of communal experiences, a treasure-house of emotions, memories, and myths. But more than that, when we ``read'' the imagery of a photograph, we are not only faced by the visual record of the print, we feel compelled to respond to the picture, to tell the ``secret story'' that is often hidden just beneath the surface.

For our workshop experiment, each student brought in a handful of family snapshots. I'd asked that they try to select one recent photo, one from their parents' generation, and another from their grandparents' world. How to make their choice amid all the images? This was my suggestion: Pick the photos that ``call'' to you, the ones that for some reason capture your attention as you flip through the album or rummage through the photo boxes.

The students were excited to share their selections and, gathering into a circle around a large table, we laid out our personal gallery. Then we milled about, pointing, laughing, exclaiming at one image or another: ``Look at me then!'' and ``Is that really you?'' The students had predicted that, aside from the normal curiosity, their photos would have no real meaning to anyone but themselves. But instead, we found a kinship between the snapshots, interweaving to form a tapestry of family life and history. One student's snap of her mother as a teenage girl prompted everyone to recall the stories that parents had passed on during dinner table conversations.

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In preparing for this class, I looked over about a dozen ``photograph'' poems that I'd written over the years. But most were too intense or too lengthy to be good models for my students. More than that, I wanted to try this experiment fresh, in just the way I would ask my students. So I scanned through my own carton of photographs and waited for the ``call'' to reach me. The one that caught my eye was kind of silly - a faded black-and-white, curled with age. It showed a gawky boy of eight standing next to a middle-aged man. The boy's smile was toothy and cavernous, and the father's subtler but equally proud. They wore matching captain's hats and each cradled a fishing pole in one hand and a giant sea bass hoisted up high in the other.

My parents had removed my sister and me from school for a surprising three-week vacation, leaving us shocked as well as delighted. We drove south to visit our grandparents in Florida. This photo was taken after a father-son fishing expedition, and I could feel the warmth of attachment just looking at it. It wouldn't be a bad idea, I thought, to let the students laugh along with me at my boisterous eight-year-old self. And, though it was a bit like stacking the deck, I knew the photo would produce a playful poem as a model.

Sitting down to write, my attention first focused outside the picture frame, sketching in the experiences that led up to the photograph - fishing poles, the Miami pier, a young boy seeking recognition in his father's eyes. Then came the poem's surprising twist, the ``secret'' that I thought was at the heart of this memory. Now the writing centered on the picture images, bearing down on that instant when ``The camera snapped, a bright flash and the moment was saved.''

But as soon as my pen formed the word ``saved,'' I knew somehow the next line would include the word ``lost.'' Suddenly the poem veered off on its own course, and the true message of the memory emerged. Words like ``lines'' and ``posing'' took on a multiplicity of meanings. As I wrote the last lines, the poem's fishing expedition pulled in its unintended catch - and Steven, the man, began to understand a bit of what Steven, the boy, had intuited decades ago and hidden away in the emotional depths. I studied the gray tones of my father's weary face and wondered what secrets he had been bearing on our last shared journey. As the poem closed, I found myself speaking, not about, but to the figures in the photograph. Alone in my room, I sat listening for some reply.

My class and I read ``The Pull'' together and talked about these three ways to ``enter'' the photograph from the horizon surrounding the experience, from the photo's careful details, or from our need to speak directly to our memories, reaching for a sense of completion. The students sat at their desks, only elbows-distance apart but separated in fact by years and great stretches of geography. They stared at their photos and, one by one, their pens descended to their notebooks. I watched the words spill furiously across the thin blue lines.

When we allow ourselves a moment of quiet, of intense concentration, we usually discover that the everyday world we know too well is masking the depth of feeling and insight that is available to us. The very act of speech within a poem often removes those disguises and propels us into the search for our most resonant experiences.

One by one, my students looked up, set pens aside and began to read over their lines. And I could tell from their faces that they were discovering very much what I had: that the photographs we carry with us are not just markers of past journeys but starting points for new ones. And when the door of the poem opens before us, you find yourself surrounded by voices and light.

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