Down decades, African Americans invented art forms that are now revered—blues, jazz, and turntables, for example—and others that have yet to be named. Within this tradition of innovation is a form best called the photopoem, whose black mode dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poems were paired with images by the Hampton Institute Camera Club. In the 1960s, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, and others made the photopoem both a celebration of black culture and a redress of the indignities the black image still faces. Surely the pinnacle of the genre is poet Langston Hughes and photographer Roy DeCarava’s transcendental book The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), which stitches together lives in Harlem through point and counterpoint, shadow and silence. Unlike the photoessay, these photopoems are less about argument or proof and more about riffs, collaboration, and revelation.
Any reflection on this rich lyrical lineage must now include Robin Coste Lewis’ scintillating new collection, “To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness.” In this follow-up to his 2015 National Book Award-winning debut album, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” Lewis pushes the boundaries of language and image, composing lines alongside a cache of hundreds of photographs found under the his late grandmother’s bed just days before the house was to be razed.
A sense of loss and near-loss pervades the book. The photopoem does more than preserve – it provokes, mourns, philosophizes, aspires and celebrates, much like Lewis’s ancestral Louisiana jazz. As someone whose family also crossed the axis of the Great Migration from Louisiana to Los Angeles, I immediately spot here if not familiar faces, then familiar looks: precision, flair and defiance, resistant even to gaze of the camera. These are parents whom the poet knows intimately but whom he also maintains as mysteries.
Lewis told me in a recent conversation, “My mind is on beauty.” “To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness” is interested in ancestry and other types of relationships, in particular those between photography and testimony, between work and pleasure, between ancient migrations and the Great, between exploration and exploitation. (The middle section of the book is a long poem about black arctic traveler Matthew Henson, a quote from who names the collection.) Its realization is cosmic and sonic, realizing in its black pages the photo album’s connection to the record album, making poems and photos, the fleeting and the immortal, parents again.