The work of German photographer Karl Blossfeldt and his relationship to plants is reimagined in this poem by 2019 Poems in Translation Contest winner Alba Cid from her collection Atlas.
Light is choral and comes from another world:
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone.
Edgar Allan Poe
1. A catalog for Karl Blossfeldt.
2. A creation that can only be seen head-on, one which celebrates the detail: fingers plucking petals and sepals to discover
3. the corolla (chrysanthemum)
4. the structures (sage)
5. a nearly nonexistent world: interior, spores, silences (nothing better than a panicle to catch a glimpse of silence).
6. With some enlargements, organic matter can become metal, sculpture, a richly split nutcracker, a Tsarine delirium after so many Tsars.
7. After each selection, earthen arrows, brushes, velvet, manipulation, and the play of light and shadow; the wary fascination of botanists.
8. Karl mounts his bicycle and leaves behind the sinewy nucleus of Berlin. We watch him pedal from above, drawing innumerable ellipses on his way to the outskirts, and we think back to a line by Jorie Graham, the line that explains sea creatures’ fascination with the moon’s traces in the water.
9. “Anything that flees so constantly must be desirable.” From “Ambergris,” in Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, 1980.
10. Revelation can come in Potsdam or Teufelsee, at the foot of an ox-path.
11. Karl kneels before every wild specimen:
12. a blue button, lichens, the motion of a fern as its arms unfurl.
13. It’s hard to deny the evocations, elevation, and curve of the stalk, withdrawing, practically en quatrième position, like a ballerina in the German Staatsballett.
14. In 1929, Walter Benjamin describes the work of Karl Blossfeldt as “an entire, unsuspected horde of analogies and forms in the existence of plants.” From “News About Flowers,” in the year cited.
15. “Horde,” he writes (which is to write stampede, the tumult of battle), without knowing that the body of photographs taken between 1890 and his death in 1932 will climb to 6,000.
16. Is there a botanical inspiration behind Doric columns? Roman crowns? Gothic choirs?
17. When you say inspiration, what do you really mean?
18. There is a heartbeat in Karl’s words, a certain eagerness for restitution, the ceaseless revelation of the elective affinities between artistic and natural forms, something almost etymological,
19. soft as the word “balm,” which crosses the River Jordan, through the valleys of Syria, anointing lips and bodies.
20. These, Karl, are close-ups of a Canna indica in black and white.
21. In a certain slant of morning, some of the canna lily’s leaves, oblong and tropical, will begin to let the sunlight through.
22. Light filters through its tissues and marks the ribbing of the plant.
23. It respects stems and transition zones. It illuminates the edges.
24. As day falls, another burst bounces off its waxed surface and makes manifest each ripple, the traces of soil, and rain.
25. And smoothness, can’t you see?
26. As for the Canna, perennial, it can easily grow two meters high, flower and fruit, folding in on itself; it wouldn’t respond well to isolation or extraction.
27. How might we decide between choreography or architecture?
28. Urals or sky?
29. Smoothness tells a story of more delicate ambitions.
30. What do you know about leaves? (You, not Karl.) About touch?
31. Are you aware of having touched them once in silence?
32. Any one of them could envelop your whole hand, even when unclasped.
33. In the instant your fingertips meet the surface, your mind makes a rapid sketch, a mental image of the thing you’ve touched.
34. The Canna is chutes and rhythms, passageways.
35. Karl parks his bike carelessly. Under his arm, a bunch of marigolds, triumphant and tender:
36. “If I give someone a horsetail, he will have no difficulty making a photographic enlargement of it—anyone can do that. But to observe it, to notice it and discover its forms, is something that only a few are capable of.”
Atlas © 2019 Alba Cid. By arrangement with the author. English Translation © 2021 Megan Berkobien and Jacob Rogers. All rights reserved.