Poet David Brooks reflects on Shadow catchers and the artworks that inspired him to write the poems for his Red Room Poetry commission. 


Ian Dodd, ‘Mirror Image’ (1975)

I first saw ‘Mirror Image’ as a thumbnail, so small I could make out very few of the details. The pixilation was low and enlargement didn’t help. The mirror, for so I thought it then to be, was like a large moon at the photograph’s centre, the rest seemed briefly up to me.

Clearly the mirror was on a table-top – a vanity, to be precise – and just beneath it, on the vanity’s surface, were items one might use in making oneself up. A brush (was it a brush?), a powder-box (was it? or a jewellery-box?), a bottle and some lipsticks (were they?) standing on end. I let my mind roam.

If this huge, white, mirror-like space was a moon, what might be below it? A table-land. But where and why? Already there was a kind of superimposition going on. I am a photographer, or used to be, an addict, once, of the work of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and others. And a photograph by Adams had come to mind, of a huge moon above a Montana landscape – I think it was Montana – at night, a time exposure: clouds, mountains and, below them, in the foothills, a tiny settlement, with one light on. I can’t find this photograph, think my mind has come up with an imaginary composite. Does that matter? No. Not really.
It think it was the jewellery-box that clinched it. If that jewellery-box wasn’t a jewellery-box, then the jewellery, if there was jewellery, was probably in one of the drawers beneath.  A table-land with gold and/or diamonds below. Therefore a mine. A gold-mine, or a diamond-mine: that would be up to the poem, and the poem eventually chose gold. But a deserted mine. Abandoned. No people. The one light on would be the caretaker’s. He’d be living in a caravan, of course. And what would he be doing? Drinking. And playing poker, with a couple of mates, visitors most likely. With stones for money, no gold there after all. And the other items on the top of the vanity would become empty oil-drums, pieces of abandoned machinery, an out-door dunny, etc. 

Later, looking at the actual photo at the Shadow Catchers exhibition in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, it seemed to me the large white oval at its centre was neither a moon nor a mirror, but a bowl, carefully positioned to resemble – present the image of – a mirror. A large(ish) jar of cream resembled a water-tank, and a rose, to the right, in a glass, made me think of a Joshua tree. I took that, in particular, back to my poem, but the poem rejected it.

Read David's poem 'The Tableland'.


Lewis Morley, ‘Donovan, musician, London’ (1965)

I was twelve in 1965 and already a fan of Donovan’s. I’d even learned the chords to ‘Mellow Yellow’ and ‘Catch the Wind’. It was nice to see him again, not looking a year older. I think I’d even seen this photo somewhere before. As I looked at it – sitting there, in my writing room, listening to an old recording of Joni Mitchell singing her song about Amelia Earhart – I tried to remember what else had happened in 1965: the death of Winston Churchill, the escalation of the Vietnam war, the Rolling Stones tour of Australia, the assassination of Malcolm X, the Seekers. For poets it’s significant both as the year the infamous Contemporary American Poetry anthology was published and (but I was misremembering: in fact, he died in 1966) as the year one of the key poets in that anthology, Frank O’Hara, died when hit by a beach buggy on Fire Island in New York.
O’Hara, I thought, as I contemplated my mission for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, not only also worked in an art gallery, but, just as I was supposed to be doing) wrote a lot of poems about works of art. I thought of his famous ‘Why I Am Not a Painter’ poem, about how he visits an artist friend’s studio, sees a painting with the word sardines in it, then, visiting again a bit later, sees that, although the finished painting is called  ‘sardines’, there are no sardines in the painting anymore. He goes home, starts to write a poem about oranges, never actually gets to them, and calls the poem ‘oranges’. I realised that, for this and perhaps some other obscure reason, I was going to have to write my Donovan poem in the style of O’Hara. Someone was going to drop in on Morley’s studio in London at the time Morley is photographing Donovan, Donovan was going to do his weird Amelia Earhart goggles thing with his hands,  etc., etc.

Read David's poem 'Donovan’s Glasses'.


Spencer Finch: ‘56 Minutes (after Kawabata), Spring’ (2004)

When I first saw this work, a sequence of nine photographs, it was in a single photograph of all nine photographs together, far too small for detail. That it was in fact nine photographs I was supposed to write about was initially a bit daunting, but it seemed to me then (still does) that at least I could see what it was about (depression…) and that gave me a head start.

I didn’t know too much about Kawabata. I’d read his The Master of Go – even written about it – but about his life, beyond the fact he’d won the Nobel Prize, nothing. I looked him up, read that he’d committed suicide in 1972, two years after his friend Yukio Mishima had committed seppuku, immediately after a failed coup attempt of some kind. Aha. I then read a bit about the photographer. ‘56 Minutes (after Kawabata), Spring’ (2004) was part of an exhibition the works in which attempted to explore the states of mind of the (human) subjects who’d inspired them. Aha again. So Kawabata’s state of mind was going to be an issue.

Which state of mind? When? Kawabata’s state of mind at the time of his suicide was a strong possibility. He’d gone into his bathroom, closed the door, turned on the gas. But was there an alternative? Another state of mind Finch might have been exploring? The sequence begins with a rather featureless landscape seen through a window, a landscape in which one can see, some distance away, some trees. The eight other photos in the sequence are all of exactly the same scene, seen through the same window, but they’re taken, at seven-minute intervals, over a period of time, and that period is dusk, the coming of night. As the sequence advances the light fades outside and the light inside becomes stronger, so that – we’ve all noticed this sort of thing – the window becomes more and more of a mirror, the scene outside weakening, the scene inside (reflected in that mirror) becoming stronger. In the sequence the scene inside is of a door – I thought, initially, a closed door. In the first photograph of the sequence, we see only the view outside (the landscape and trees); in the last, we see only the door.
Finch says he got this idea from a passage in Kawabata’s first novel, Snow Country (originally published in 1937), still his best-known work. In this passage Kawabata’s central character talks about a moment when a scene inside a railway carriage – a woman’s face – is reflected in the carriage window on the other side of which, since the moment is just on dusk, one can see, at the same time, the sun setting among the snow-covered mountains the train is passing through. Could it be this state of mind Finch is exploring? What is this state of mind? Kawabata seems to have been rather obsessed with Snow Country. He kept returning to it, revising it, throughout his life. It appears his last work, before he committed suicide (if he did: his family denied it), was to condense the entire novel into a short story, ‘Gleanings from Snow Country’, published posthumously in his Palm-of-the-Hand Stories (1988).

A lot, then, to take into consideration as I wrote about Finch’s sequence. I haven’t even touched on the plot of Snow Country. (Or reflected – though I will, now – that, in traditional, non-digital photography, the positive images we see are based upon negative images, and that, if we were to hold the negatives of these photographs up to the light, what we see in the positives as a featureless, dark landscape in the foreground would look, instead, like a field of snow.) How was I going to go about it all?
Set some parameters. Parameters might help.

I made an initial set of notes, shaped them into a poem of sorts, a draft. It came to fifteen lines. I toyed with them, rearranged things so it would come to fourteen lines, a sonnet. Not a very good one, I might say, and I’ve never been much interested in such poetic formalism, but hey, it’s the kind of thing poets do, if only to tighten things up a bit. And then an idea struck me. The ‘56 minutes’ in Finch’s title refers to the time period the sequence covers. Nine photos, seven minutes between them, eight intervals in all: 8x7=56. As a point of idle curiosity I divided 56 by 14, the number of lines in a sonnet. Four times exactly. So, four sonnets, one line (as it were) for each minute.

In the long run, the four sonnets didn’t quite do it. I seemed to me I was just getting started. So many voices were crowding in upon, or rising up from, Finch’s sequence, that there seemed an alternative, a shadow, to everything I said. There was Finch’s voice, there was Kawabata’s, there was mine (if I were to be honest, and it would be inevitable anyway), there were those of the characters in Snow Country, there were the ‘voices’ of the mediums themselves (poetry, photography), etc., etc. How to catch these shadows? For each sonnet I had written, it seemed to me, there was at least one sonnet I hadn’t. And so the idea of four extra sonnets – shadow sonnets – appeared. And of arranging them in such an interlinear fashion (roman and italic faces, different type sizes) that they could remain distinct and yet their qualifications and supplementary informations – their intrusions – be suggested.

There’s more I could say but I’ll leave it at that. That, and the fact that, when I finally got to see the photographs full-size I discovered that the door I had thought closed was in fact open. Aha. Good.

Read David's poem 'Snow Country'.