Writing with Light: Photo-Poetic Encounters in 20th-Century Russian Poetry


A review of Writing with Light: Photo-Poetic Encounters in Tsvetaeva, Pasternak and Brodsky, by Molly Thomasy Blasing.

Molly Thomasy Blasing’s dissertation provides a much needed, theoretically informed, and provocative analysis of the importance of photography as technique and metaphor in the work of Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak, and Joseph Brodsky. Blasing’s analysis combines a thorough grounding in the theoretical treatment of photography with productive interdisciplinary readings of the importance of photography in each poet’s life and in their artistic processes as manifested in key texts and related images, including previously unpublished archival materials.

Blasing’s introduction provides the larger theoretical and literary historical framework for the study. She discusses the theories of Andre Bazin, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Giorgio Agamben, Susan Sontag, and others, focusing specifically on: the intersections between photography and death; photography as witness; and structural similarities between photographs and poems as framed texts. Photography and poetry, in Blasing’s formulation, “share common aesthetic and social aims: each medium seeks to capture human experience, to bear witness to history, to expose truths by means of unusual framings and formulations” (p. 16). Additionally, both are indexical (Helen Vendler), apostrophic, allusive rather than narrative. These common aesthetic and social aims and characteristics provide a critical, Blasing argues, but understudied element of Modernist artistic production.

In the first chapter, “Through the Lens of Loss: Tsvetaeva’s Elegiac Photo-Poetics,” Blasing makes a convincing case that for Tsvetaeva, photographs function as an effective means of creating a “third space” of metaphysical elegiac connection with the departed. After a closer presentation of Barthes’, Sontag’s, and Benjamin’s writings on the links between photography and mortality, Blasing shows how Tsvetaeva used photographs as elegiac spaces of connection beginning in her early poetry, in the poem “To Grandmother.” In this poem, the photograph does not merely memorialize the departed as a memento mori, but serves as a metaphysical meeting place where communion or conversation with the departed is possible. Blasing then examines Tsvetaeva’s use of photographs in her correspondence with Rilke, showing that, as in “To Grandmother,” photographs create an alternate time and space where two souls might commune with each other. The 1931 “Dom” and an epistolary exchange with Anna Teskova about a photograph of the Prague Knight offer evidence of a somewhat different use of photography—as photo-poetic self-portrait of the poet’s soul. Finally, Blasing reads Tsvetaeva’s poem “Nadgrobie,” on the death of her friend Nikolai Gronskii, together with a series of photographs Tsvetaeva took of the late Gronskii’s empty room. Read together, the poetic text and the photographs illustrate and inform each other, deepening and extending the elegiac mode: the earlier belief in photography as a site where one can somehow capture or commune with the metaphysical essence of the departed is abandoned in favor of a potentially revelatory photo-poetic self-portrait that both memorialized the departed and served as an elegy for the poet’s self. Blasing’s analysis of the photographic in Tsvetaeva reveals not only an important motif for poetic reflection in Tsvetaeva’s oeuvre, but serves as an important corrective to the widely held view that Tsvetaeva was a poet for whom the visual had particularly little importance. Rather, photography acts for Tsvetaeva as a “means of refracting and reflecting the physical and emotional spaces of mourning” (p. 95), not to ignore the visual, but as a way to construct a “metaphysical form of seeing…as a way of transcending ordinary human vision” (p. 44).

In the second chapter, “Illuminating Consciousness: Pasternak’s Poetics of Photography,” Blasing treats photography’s importance in Boris Pasternak’s poetic world. Although visual perception, and painting specifically, has been well-studied in Pasternak’s work, Blasing shows that attention to the development of photo-poetics underscores an important constitutive element of Pasternak’s poetics (conflict between motion and stasis). She examines biographical experiences of photography, animation, and movies as Pasternak was coming of age, showing that for Pasternak, photography from childhood into early adulthood represented a contradictory experience that both isolated moments in time and, by doing so, underlined the impossibility of effectively capturing the subject’s essence, which is visible only in motion. Blasing shows how these attitudes are not only manifested in Pasternak’s personal photographs, but are related to his studies of phenomenology and to broader debates about photography taking place among Pasternak’s friends and colleagues (including Osip Brik) in the 1920s. She shows how photographically centered poems in Pasternak’s My SisterLife function as poetic snapshots as they, to paradoxical effect, “emphasize the process of artistic creation rather than the product” (p. 164). In “Groza, momental’naia navek” the unpublished “Toska, beshenaia, beshenaia”, “Zerkalo” and “Zamestitel’nitsa,” Blasing shows that Pasternak “invokes photographic imagery and tropes as a way of isolating the experience of perceiving, capturing, and processing moments in time” (p. 166). In her analysis of Pasternak’s historical poetics in “1905” and “Spektorskii,” Blasing builds on work by Lazar Fleishman, Larissa Rudova, and Ludmila Schleyfer Lavine to show that the duality between motion and stasis that is central to Pasternak’s understanding and use of photography manifests in these works as an ambivalence, presenting a focus on the process of seeing as isolated by photography, but showing the resulting printed image to be necessarily flawed and compromised. Albeit Blasing finds that in Pasternak’s later work, in Doctor Zhivago and the late poem “Edinstvennye dni,” photographic motifs are not directly engaged, she shows how visual motifs and the photography-inspired sense of the tension between motion and stasis are central to the meaning and functioning of these works.

The third chapter, “Framing Memory: Joseph Brodsky and Photographic Time,” focuses on photo-poetics in the work and life of Joseph Brodsky. Blasing examines how Brodsky’s interest in photography was intertwined with his relationship with his father, who was a professional photographer. Linked to memory and nostalgia, photography for Brodsky was associated, from the beginning, with an awareness of the passing of time. His use of photo-poetics, argues Blasing, is reminiscent of the ways photography works for both Tsvetaeva and Pasternak. For Brodsky, the result is a photo-poetics that focuses on photography as a record of the flow of time, a way of studying personality. Blasing reads Brodsky’s statements about photography from his essays and interviews, together with analysis by Svetlana Boym, Sanna Turoma, Valentina Polukhina, and Joanna Madloch. She is particularly interested in the way Brodsky intertwines the poetic word and photographic image, in the poems “Dorogaia, ia vyshel…,” “Poliarnyi issledovatel’,” “My zhili v gorode tsveta okamenevshei vodki…,” and “Roman Elegies.” The poem “Poliarnyi issledovatel’” shows how photo-poetics work for Brodsky throughout his oeuvre: word and image occupy “multiple distinct temporal planes: the photo is a fragmented and static slice of the past, while the words of the diary represent a present time frame that, in the wake of the explorer’s death, will send a message to the future” (p. 251). In her reading of “Roman Elegies,” Blasing examines Brodsky’s slight but consistent preference for the verbal over the visual; she makes creative and profound use of the poem’s drafts from the Beinecke archives to show the nuances in Brodsky’s presentation of and evolution of the relationship between photography and poetry. Whereas the poem shows Brodsky’s preoccupation with the parallels between taking photographs and writing a poem (p. 264), the changes that take place from the drafts to the published version show a less pronounced belief in the power of poetic photographic images, which “prove to be most effective when accompanied by verbal art that frames and shapes their story and their context” (p. 275).

In the conclusion, or, as she calls it, the “coda” of the dissertation, Blasing brings the discussion of photo-poetics into the twenty-first century by discussing the work of Andrei Sen-Sen’kov. As is true of his twentieth-century predecessors, for Sen’-Senkov photography both shapes and reflects the larger preoccupations and artistic principles of his artistic system. Blasing argues that “both poetry and photography for this writer are means of taking ordinary everyday experiences and transforming them into a strange, almost unrecognizable world” (p. 281). For this writer, both image and text, photography and poetry, are acts of violence and recordings of pain. Blasing analyses several photo-poems from the cycle Slomannye fotografii Dzhona Glassie to show how photographs, which themselves frame a particular object or occurrence, are then revised, limited, and defined by Sen’-Sen’kov’s poetic texts, to highlight a “larger pattern of visualizing brutality” (p. 292). By ending her dissertation with this analysis, Blasing suggests that the intersections of text and image, in our current internet-saturated culture, will continue to be central to the development of Russian poetics in the twenty-first century. In order to appreciate those intersections, she argues, it is crucial to understand the profound influence that photography has already had in the history of Russian poetry in the twentieth century, as it manifested itself in the work of three of its greatest poets. Molly Thomasy Blasing’s dissertation provides an important, well-argued, provocative contribution to multiple fields, and once published more widely, this work will become a valuable resource. It is important to Slavic Studies generally—and particularly to the study of twentieth-century Russian poetry—for understanding the work of the poets under discussion, and to those interested in the intersection between poetry and photography.

Rebecca Pyatkevich
Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian Studies
Lewis & Clark College

Primary Sources

Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI) Fond 1190, Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva
Tsvetaeva House Museum, Moscow
Pasternak Family Archive, Moscow
Joseph Brodsky Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Joseph Brodsky Papers, Russian National Library (St. Petersburg), Manuscript Department Fond 1333

Dissertation Information

University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2014. 322 pp. Primary Advisor: David Bethea.

Image: Photograph of Rainer Maria Rilke’s writing desk, sent to Marina Tsvetaeva in the summer of 1926.  Courtesy of the Pasternak Family Archive.

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