I’m aware that my audience for this blog is a mix of seasoned poetry readers and those who are less comfortable with contemporary poetry (hi Mom!). And while I want to be welcoming as a guide for the less experienced, I don’t want to shy away from more challenging material. So trigger warning: this is a trickier poem than the ones I’ve written on recently, and needs a bit more explanation. I also think it’s really smart and perceptive, and that its difficulty is crucial to its success, so I hope you’ll bear with me.
The speaker of Jeff Latosik’s “Aubade Photoshop” is rehashing a relationship that has broken down, and the fault is at least partly his own. His desire to replay events, even to revise his memories of what’s happened, leads him to some complicated syntax and metaphors. But they will also ultimately lead him to a hard-won nugget of insight. Here’s the poem:
That you might rope a past vacation’s sky
whose blue was not that well expressed,
hog-tie its gaffes and vacancies, drag it
to a place between that time and this.
Not quite plucked from the invisible spectrum
like galaxies bright as cellophane in Quality Street
or happened into suddenly like a lapsed god’s eye
staring back from light-year stacks of helium.
I could let a scrim of Red Label tint an afternoon
where things would give up shape and focus
and disclose, from a secret blush, all those vapoury proximities
so that shoals of my living and dead float up,
and all I said or didn’t say in tune with hindsight’s
unflappable A440 will be resaid, the way
it’s easier to be right once the moment’s fled
or how you expanded the range of your voice by aping Bocelli.
It was all just settling, lime stain on stone, or an ism
of which you’ve grown especially fond. Things I couldn’t detach
but didn’t know it yet. I had to write this as a kind of letter.
We put a screen in front of things to see them better.
— from Safely Home Pacific Western, published by Icehouse Poetry (2016), used by permission
Latosik’s oblique title starts us off with a pun: aubade and Adobe. Adobe, of course, is the company that makes and sells the computer program Photoshop that many use to manipulate images, whether cleaning up “imperfections” in a magazine cover or adding a missing family member into a group shot at a wedding. An aubade is an old poetic form, going back to the 1600s at least. It’s a morning poem, traditionally spoken by a lover who must depart. (My personal favourite is John Donne’s “The Sun Rising.”) There’s often regret, delightful longing, and a bit of a sense of danger or pressure on the speaker. Why does the lover have to leave? Is the affair illicit somehow or is it just the work day calling? Sometimes there’s also the more metaphoric sense that our times of pleasure on earth are fleeting, that the approach of death itself is like the harsh approach of dawn. Modern aubades (like Philip Larkin’s here) often follow the metaphoric path more explicitly, turning the romantic aubade into a meditation on mortality.
But what, then, is an “aubade photoshop”? Even before we truly begin, Latosik introduces a conflict: “photoshop” is a tool we use to control how and what we see, but “aubade” reminds us of our limitations. So how does this conflict play out?
We begin with the speaker musing on the power of image manipulation – the “that” that opens the poem is a shortening of a conditional construction like, “As if you could…” So, I could paraphrase (brutally) the opening stanza as something like, “As if you could change the background tone of the sky into something you’d seen before while on vacation…” What’s strange is that it doesn’t seem that the speaker wants to perfect his memories: the sky from the “past vacation” was “not that well expressed,” and he wants to capture its “gaffes and vacancies,” not its pleasures and fulfillments. So already the usual notion that we use Photoshop to improve our images seems turned on its head.
The next stanza lets us know that he’s not seeking something beyond the ordinary – not from the “invisible spectrum,” although it seems he’s more interested in narrowing down his choices (not this, not that) than in expanding them. Latosik uses language from quantum physics (helium can be used to measure the heat of stars, please don’t ask me how), but also refers to Quality Street chocolates, which are wrapped in brightly coloured – and easily differentiated – cellophane. What’s emerging is the speaker’s desire to put things in disctinct categories, to sort out the messy shadings that make up his life and to simplify them into more easily interpretable primary colours.
He muses in the next stanza that he could accomplish something like this if he drinks enough Red Label whiskey to put a “tint” on everything he sees and remembers. The impulse to want to put a different perspective on a situation (even by getting drunk) seems familiar and reasonable, but by now I’d guess you’re wondering, Why the dense language and roundabout syntax? Why is the speaker taking so much elaborate care to explain how he would like to see more simply and clearly? The desire for clarity, for tonal perfection (A440 is “perfect A” above middle C used as the tuning standard) is presented in a way that feels murky, filled with qualification. Our speaker is demonstrating, even when saying he wants clarity, that he can’t achieve it. But why?
The hints we have are when we finally see a glimpse of the “you” this poem has been addressed to all along. We learn two things about this friend at the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth stanza: s/he has a talent for vocal parody (learn more about the famous blind tenor Andrea Bocelli here) and an attraction to isms. The first detail shows us that the addressee of the poem can have a bit of fun while still improving his skills, expanding his vocal range. (I’m going to assume the addressee is male for this reason – most women wouldn’t expand their vocal range nearly as much by aping Bocelli as they would by aping, say, Jessye Norman.) The second detail shows us that, unlike the speaker, the friend can do what our speaker cannot – he can see clearly, even if the ism he grows fond of is only a temporary solution. Because what is an ism (Communism, Feminism, Existentialism, Judaism, etc.) but a way of clarifying our sense of how the world works? So the person being spoken to is adept at doing exactly what our speaker has been tying himself into grammatical knots expressing his inability to do.
And now that we finally have another person in the poem, the context of the aubade returns. It appears that something has gone wrong between our speaker and his Bocelli-imitating friend. He’s painfully wishing that he could revisit their arguments (“it’s easier to be right once the moment’s fled”), but just as importantly, he can’t reach out to his friend in person, but “had to write this as a kind of letter” (Notice that even the categories “letter” and “poem” are blurry for our speaker – it’s not a letter it’s a “kind of letter.”)
The final line, “We put a screen in front of things to see them better,” works on a number of levels. First, it’s finally a moment of simple statement, in a straightforward iambic rhythm, and is the only line of the poem that contains, and is contained by, a complete sentence. So it seems that the loss of the relationship, if not the relationship itself, has finally taught our speaker to make a clear truth claim. Let’s call that progress.
Second, “We put a screen in front of things to see them better” is an admission of fault, a recognition that in his desire to see things better, our speaker struggles to categorize them more neatly than perhaps he should. We want to see things more clearly, and so we put barriers to our understanding of them, losing some of their complexity and nuance. Perhaps in this sense the line is a bit of an apology.
But “see them better” could also mean “better than it actually was.” The sense of nostalgia, of reluctance or longing, that often permeates an aubade, is here turned into something like a desire to remember something more fondly, as more significant than it was. Maybe our speaker is finally realizing that the friendship wasn’t all that great to begin with.
And finally the last line points to the poem itself, a screen of language which seems to be gradually helping our speaker to come to terms with what he’s lost. Forcing light through the screen of hydrogen gas helps reveal its chemical makeup. And forcing a complicated feeling through the screen of a poem might help clarify it as well, with all its difficulty and nuance.