Editor's essay. Feeling more at home - but not too much
HE travels light. Rumpled, in a chic jacket, his one camera bumping his chest. M'alaga, Spain; Bathsheba, Barbados; Ahmadabad, India; Boston; Paris; Prague - wherever. He was born Pavel, became Pablo, then Paul, Ickovic; and his photos would end up in a book, Kafka's Grave and Other Stories, printed on letterpress by the Stinehour Press, Vt., with a preface by David Mamet (82 pp., $100, available on special order from any bookstore or from Okapi Editions, 40 E. 83rd St. #8E, New York, NY 10028). Spacious pages (17 by 14 inches) and superb printing make this a very fine book by any standards. There is almost no profit for artist or publisher in this kind of book.
``Kafka's Grave'' points to the last picture in the book. It also, more privately, points to the fact that Ickovic is actually related to the Austrian-Czech writer Franz Kafka on his mother's side (``It may explain some of my craziness,'' he quipped with a quicksilver smile as we discussed his book); and that a New York cabby liked the title the photographer and a novelist friend came up with.
Mamet's one-pager speaks of the bond between the children of ``immigrant Jews'' like himself and Ickovic. Something he says sheds light on the general impulse to travel. Speaking of himself and Ickovic and others like them, Mamet writes that ``our lives are a fierce attempt to find an aspect of the world that is not open to interpretation.''
Not open to interpretation: A remarkable confession in an age when everything, it seems, is open to interpretation!
From his pictures, we gather that for Ickovic, living and traveling are formally conterminous: Both end in - they take their meaning from - the absolute.
He almost always shoots full frame - with few exceptions the photographs are uncropped. He's a purist, but not a fanatic.
Such great ends are served by the simple, elegant means of Leica M2, with a 35 mm lens. Ickovic always uses natural lighting, so-called ``available light.''
Ickovic treats his subjects with rare respect. Frequently the composition of hispictures reducesto horizontals (streets, table tops) and verticals (people). The light, inside and out, is cool. It can be bright, as in his picture of Bombay doorways crowded with prostitutes, or the sun flash on the spine and haunches of a sacred cow in Ahmadabad.
In Prague, it's hazy outside, artificially even-lit within.
In Sicily, Ickovic finds on the shady side of the street a shrine carved out of the wall - ``Ecce homo''! - with candles and withered greens. The street, like all streets in this book, is washed clean. The sun shines just around the corner.
These pictures will strike some as abstract, some as old-fashioned looking. Most of them have several focal points. Each is drenched in lived time. Ickovic captures the new-old quality of human places and faces.
And there's no clutter - artistically or otherwise. In the last picture, of a graveyard in Prague, the soft light falls evenly on the crowded, casual stones.
Is Mamet right in suggesting that these pictures are closed to interpretation? I think he means that they capture moments of absolute rightness. Yes, this is how it was, or rather: this is how it is....
Caught in such moments, we almost feel time stop - thus becoming acutely aware of our almost constant motion through time. Is that the ``poetry of travel''?
The illusion is that these moments are free for the taking, when in fact they are the result of great artifice - thousands of ``takes'' for every transcendent moment. The word ``travel'' is linked to the word ``travail,'' which is ``literary'' for ``work''! Literary indeed! Conceived as an approach to the absolute, travel is hard work.
WALKER PERCY once wrote about our need for ``rotation,'' for seeing things anew, even common things, like one's right hand. Some people travel for the sake of ``rotation,'' and sometimes the guidebook and such notions as the ``third world'' filter what they see. Existence is not enhanced. Boredom and frustration attend many a cultural safari.
On the other hand, the poetry of travel, of true ``rotation,'' is not dependent on going away. The fine Hungarian poet Dezso Tandori shares his Budapest home with nine sparrows. The birds keep the everyday from becoming drab! Enjoying Birds and Other Relations (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N. J. 153 pp. $26, cloth. $9.50, paper) opens windows on how to travel without leaving home.
The epigraph of ``The Very Same City'' alerts us to the theme: ``He plays that he is a visitor in a foreign city.'' As often in Tandori's poems, here strangeness and familiarity hold a rapt conversation and keep interrupting each other, and yet, in the 74 long lines, there are only four full stops! The speaker, named anagramatically ``Tradoni,'' leaves home with shopping bags full of bread, scattering them for birds at several points, crosses the Danube to buy a ``foreign'' pizza, and returns. The poem ends with him taking a nap, one of his sparrows sleeping on his back.
And the absolute? ``...while he's sleeping the bird changes her/ position, he realizes it elsewhere, but through thought only, not/ by squeezing, that would kill her/ he must know only through thought/ and he walks that out in the city, crosses, awaits the possibility....''
``Birds and Other Relations'' is finely printed and bound, and should make many friends for the Hungarian master stay-at-home-traveler-poet.
THE compendious new Oxford Book of Travel Verse (Oxford University Press, New York, 423 pp., $21.95) is full of finds. There's the ``modest glory'' of a lighthouse in Maine (Derek Mahon), the ``rosy immanence'' of the redwood trees in Muir Woods, Calif. (Thom Gunn), and ``faces/ Less tame than tigers'' in Berlin (C.H. Sisson).
Gerda Mayer, born in Czechoslovakia in 1927, salutes the emergence of ``reality'' in some crumbling pagan statuary. Her poem is a history of a place - a park - a history of a people and, in ways, of modern Europe.
We recognize the quality of light from Ickovic's photographs. Like them, the poem elicits a sense of time from the place, a sense of duration, of generations. The photographer can only ``catch'' historical change, the poet can name it. Mayer shows the shift from the gay and decorous and open air concerns and coffee topped with a dollop of cream, through the ``crooked time,'' to the present, a ``time of unyielding ideals.''
Now the ``egalitarian'' walk in this park, ``but without conviction.'' They feel out of place. The park has become a place of epiphany, the emergence from crude stone of nymphs and satyrs.
And it's progress, of a sort. Modern socialist man is being jostled by outmoded antique gods!
Photographer and poet catch the impersonal moment of revelation. To see images as ``beyond interpretation'' is to savor the fullness of Gerda Mayer's art. Her traveler grasps the moment as a voice. She interprets: Her poem is history, and wiser than history. The stone nymphs and satyrs speak, though in language we have yet to understand.
Paul Ickovic, Dezso Tandori, and Gerda Mayer each show us how to get the most out of travelling. Or put it this way: They are important to us because they help redefine for our times the notion of homo viator, man the wayfarer, and by doing so, make us feel a little more at home - but not too much - in this sometimes vertiginous world.
Small Park in East Germany: 1969 By Gerda Mayer Crumbling and weathered, their features half-erased, they stand gracefully in these gardens under the quiet sun, satyrs and goddesses, some in niches of leaves; now they're returning to stone, they are more real than when - what ages ago? - they were wheeled in and put up, looking too white and too newly chiselled. Once all was gay and decorous; children white-beribboned and sailor-suited drove their hoops before them, the white whipped cream topped aromatic coffee, and the band played in the open air to the prosperous and the bourgeois. The band is silent, the caf'e locked up, the too prosperous have departed. And departed too is that later and crooked time that fouled Germany's air. Now is the time of unyielding ideals; the egalitarian walk here but without conviction and feel out of place. But whose place was it ever? The happy complacent once owned it perhaps but in a different way; then came the blackly hysterical, then the quietly out-of-sorts. It seems to belong to itself and is growing towards Arcadia; a half-forgotten garden full of dense leaves and sun, and nymphs and satyrs breaking from weathered stone.