“Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” A book by Adam Kirsch To see long excerpts from “Emblems of the Passing World” at Google Books, click here.

French philosopher Roland Barthes once said of a young man in a Civil War-era photograph by Alexander Gardner that he “is dead and he is going to die.” To put it another way, as a person is headed toward death (the young man is waiting to be executed), his or her light, when imprinted on a photo, continues to partially exist. Thus, death has both occurred and is in process. Once photographed, humans die a double death.

Taking a cue from this concept, the people in August Sander’s photos perhaps killed and may go on killing. Sander, who took portraits from around 1901 until 1964, straddled many of the horrors of the 20th century, and his subjects, the ordinary citizens of Germany, can easily become the subjects of an imagined smear campaign determined by the future in which they would inevitably take part. They were the commandants, the generals, the followers and the cadets.

Simply put, they could be the guilty.

Watch, for instance, as the date “1926” rises up to shock in Sander’s “Middle-class Child, 1926.” It is a little girl, maybe 7 or 8, but she grows up fast in the frenzy of the viewer’s imagination and the swift impulse to assign blame. One could imagine her later cracking a joke in one of Berlin’s chic restaurants in the mid-’30s, tossing a flirtatious glance to young officers, tidy and smug in Reich dress browns, at the next table. She’s rich enough to be unguardedly frivolous, educated just enough to be enticed by hollow ring of empty truisms filling the air.

Photographs leave the door open to these flights of the imagination. As poet Adam Kirsch puts it in a brief introduction to his new book of poems on Sander’s photographs, “Emblems of the Passing World,” “The exact fate of the individual portrayed in the photograph, his or her choices and suffering, remains a blank.”

It is in the “blank” where Sander’s photographs introduce the moral question of how to handle a photograph of a person both anchored in history, yet not entirely disclosed by it. Is there an etiquette here, or should we take what we will from a photo, informed by the details we see as well as the speculative future? How does one write poems, which must rely on voice and song and rhythm and image, about Sander’s subjects?

The same date of 1926 also readily condemns the subject of “Student of Philosophy [Erich Sander], 1926,” who could, in an imagined version of history, sit forever in one’s mind in a leftist coffee shop in the Weimar Republic, content with his criticism and wit, too smart to take action against the rising tide.

Yet Kirsch is not quick to speculate about the student, actually offering a bit of rebuke to speculative thinking:

Knowledge can only be knowledge of This world, which is a tournament of need For power, status, money, beauty, love—

The verse both sets a stage for many of the poems in the book and lets us briefly into the world that a student of philosophy in the Weimar era was eager to attend to. Kirsch attends to that world as well, noticing details about the student that are right in front of us:

The weak chin, thinning hair, myopic eyes and slough of resentful shoulders. Actually, the verse concerning knowledge could be seen as the mantra of “Emblems of the Passing World.” You do not need Nazis and the Holocaust to find the human tournament of need. Instead, you find the tournament everywhere, as easily in the everyday as in the extraordinary. W.H. Auden’s rimshot comes around again:

Evil is unspectacular and always human And shares our bed and eats at our table, And we are introduced to Goodness every day. Even in drawing-rooms among a crowd of faults.

The more time one spends with “Emblems of the Passing World,” the more embedded the poems become in the actuality of history. One starts to notice details about Sander’s Weimar world. There is a “Fitter” (one who installs machinery) who has the looks of an aristocrat, and that is enough to conjure a world of debate over whether class was imposed or ordained. A group of working-class children are paradoxically pale, which leads to a meditation of poverty and nutrition to defeat the cliché that country folk are naturally instilled with the tan of vigor. In a middle-class couple, Kirsch finds a tension between having wealth and having knowledge of those who lack it, a tension that Europe in the early part of the 20th century is only starting to discover.

Kirsch seems to make an ethical commitment to read Sander’s faces from what he knows, from the past leading toward the present depicted in the photo, rather than from the future back to the past. Kirsch avoids any judgment of his subjects that cannot be revealed from their physical appearance in concert with Sander’s pithy descriptors of what they did for a living. His imagination is bent toward empathy rather than the assigning of guilt, so that the “Laboratory Technician, 1938” is not the potential Dr. Mengele, but rather:

The man he was that morning on the bus Or will be when climbs in bed at night Has vanished wholly in the fretful focus Needed to get his calculations right.

In the end, however, the embeddedness in history that Kirsch finds in his poems necessarily reveals details that will be relevant later. One finds the stuff that made the Nazis, but one finds it in a careful manner, from study and not from the type of superficial viewing of Sander’s photographs that led the Nazis themselves to ban the photos in 1934, on the grounds that they did not adequately portray what was considered the Aryan race. That Kirsch resists the simple explanation, despite the aforementioned minefield of reasons to stereotype these images, is one of the achievements of the book.

Nazism rises from the debates and concerns of these everyday people, and it is astonishing how easily the people they were become the people they will be. Through a rough-and-tumble scarring of his face, a fraternity student learns the necessity of “Keeping quiet, following commands / Stopping at nothing, knowing how to bleed.” A teacher, a full decade before Hitler, likes his students “sly, passive, easy to control.” A girl, caught in the instant when her beauty is starting to age, wears a military blouse “which hint her generation has in store / a fate less lovely and more serious.” Not even Sander escapes, Kirsch zeroing in on an infamous photo of Sander’s wife with her two sons (one dead): “What kind of father asks his wife to hold / Her dead child and her live one in her arms, / Then poses her and fiddles with the lights.”

Such details step shyly forward. These poems and these photographs indeed become emblems of the passing world, distinctive badges denoting the heraldry of a Germany in transition. That Kirsch finds a way to deepen these emblems, making them more than superficial symbols, makes this an important book about one of the 20th century’s most devastating eras.

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