Dioramas, Snowpack, Photography, and Nostalgia: A Snapshot of Longing
I’ve been pondering some of the fascinations and fastenings of my recent poetic life, and have come to the conclusion that it is not entirely an accident that I am currently working on several seemingly disparate subjects. Chronologically speaking, it is probably true to say that the first began when I was almost eighteen and had arrived in New York City for the first time. I was en route to Copenhagen, after exchanging my babysitting savings (slated for my first year’s tuition at Humboldt State) for a one-way airplane ticket and a four-month Eurail pass. I wandered into the American Museum of Natural History hours after experiencing my first mugging on the third floor of Grand Central near the lockers; I was having, it might be said, the quintessential New York tourist experience. But I found the Hall of Mammals, the Akeley dioramas, and I spent hours standing in front of them, shooting them with my Pentax K-1000 as though it were possible somehow to capture these creatures on film. It wasn’t just the animals that enticed me; although they did—the wolves, their icy eyes eying me, the moose frozen and unblinking, the lion, his mane flaring in the heat of an invisible sun—nor was it the beautifully rendered backdrops; the attention to each tendril of each plant, to the perfect illumination of every sky. It was the settings, the sense of time that was lost in the frame, the lack of context. It feels terribly politically incorrect to admit this, but I liked it. I liked not having to think about what I couldn’t see, even though I knew to some degree what was there just beyond the glass—the hunters, the disease, the humans who were inexorably tied to the display. My mother had studied anthropology at UCLA and spent several years in Ethiopia in the mid 1960’s; I was painfully aware of the calamities faced by so many African nations in the twentieth century. And I ought to note that it wasn’t until years later when I learned for some of the species featured in the dioramas, many others of the very same species were killed in order to obtain the most perfect specimen. Even if I had known that, it was hard to extract myself from the ideal, from the imagining of the Akeley universe with as little complexity as possible beyond the frame—no children in the background with maggot eggs dotting their eyelids, no semiautomatic rifles slung over the shoulders of soldiers, no disembodied claws or feet or skulls or skin. Some, such as Richard Barnes, author of “Animal Logic,” have used the term “reanimations” to speak of the dioramas. I am not quite sure if I see them as re-animated from their lives. As my daughter said, on her first visit to the museum, “even though they look real, their eyes are really dead.” But if you suspend yourself just so while walking through the immense halls, there is a strange sense of a universe spare of complications—and in that way, perhaps, spare of sentiment.
But of course, that isn’t really true. Evocations of the natural world that once was create a deep sense of nostalgia—perhaps both the nostalgia that was once considered a sort of psychopathic disorder identified in the early 1600’s by a Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer, symptomatized by a “mania of longing,” as well as the voluptuous and rather impenetrable sense of melancholy one experiences when with the prospect of utter impermanence. It was on this particular notion that I began some poems exploring the strange universe of taxidermy. Taxidermy, as Rachel Poliquin writes in her elegant, eloquent book, “The Breathless Zoo,” is emblematic of our cultural longing. It presents all of the complications of modernization, and all of the loneliness embodied in what has disappeared. It embodies the complications between preservation and authenticity and a deep sadness for a lost world. I think this, in some ways, mirrors the task of both poetry and photography; both sorts of artists are ethnographers of longing, chroniclers of what has, or is, or could, disappear.
This preoccupation with disappearance may in fact predate my NYC adventure in Akeley Hall of Mammals. I grew up in the Los Angeles area, where snow was an utter mystery. I loved Wilder’s The Long Winter for its insane accountings of the family’s life during the infamous winter of 1880-81, and moved on to White Fang and the grim accounts of Shackelton and Stefansson. I had a profound, nearly erotic intrigue with the idea of winter; I read accounts of ice sledding and drifts high as rooftops with the same level of decadence devoted to porn. Most recently on a trip to Nova Scotia I discovered the small but memorable “Memoirs of a Cape Breton Doctor” which chronicles Dr. Lamont MacMillan’s adventures during the early 1930’s in the strange liminal state between horse-drawn sleighs and automobiles. “I got so thoroughly stuck in this snowbank that I couldn’t move the mare at all…Working hard at this, I found myself short of breath, trying to pull the sleigh up out of the snow.” Just a few minutes later, his horse, Gypsy Queen, had overturned the sleigh to get free. “It’s a good thing I had taken my bags with me, because everything else that had been in the sleigh was buried in the snow…My buffalo robes, lantern, shovel, and the rest of the gear wasn’t found till the following May…” It was not until months later that I noticed Annie Dillard’s weaving of his stories in “For the Time Being,” Dillard’s beautiful reconciliation with the fact that indeed some things do disappear.
Perhaps it is stubbornness, not nostalgia, that governs some of these poetic preoccupations. There is a strange interweaving between poems that attempt to memorialize or govern my longing, and new poems that attempt to actually dismantle it, which originated in my fourth summer at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. This convergence of poets in late June in the stunning beauty of the Northeastern Sierra generated a sort of orderly paranoia in me; the slow but steady disappearance of snow—in particular, of what had once been a glacier—on Squaw Peak—made me wish that poetry could, in fact, literally act as photograph, to capture the still, silent melt of my mountain. Looking back on MacMillan’s accounts in Cape Breton, it is hard not to hear his good-natured accounts of racing over sheets of ice for emergency medical calls to deliver infants or battle terminal pneumonia, and hard not to feel that I have somehow been cheated, not only by growing up in a year-round sun bath, but by the intense realization that my daughters may in fact be some of the last generation of children to experience winter snow in the Sierra in all but its highest peaks. Right now, my poems can’t seem to get past that. They ache to take a snapshot of the snow, a testament from the firn, an ethnography of the deceased lives that are not acting in the staged dioramas of the past. They ache to chronicle longing, as though the act of writing could make the very notion of it disappear.
Heather Altfeld teaches in the English Department and the Honors Program at California State University, Chico. Her recent and forthcoming publications include poetry in Narrative Magazine, Pleiades, Poetry Northwest, ZYZZYVA, Sow’s Ear Review, Greensboro Review, Squaw Valley Review, Jewish Currents, Laurel Review, The New Guard, and Zone 3. She has completed her first book of poems and is currently working on a second book of poetry and a book of stories for children.