Salamander 2024 Fiction Contest

SUBMIT: May 1 through June 2, 2024 | READING FEE: $15

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Self-Portraiture, Family History, and the Lyric: One Hundred Hungers by Lauren Camp (Tupelo Press, 2016) and Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti by Chad Parmenter (Tupelo Press, 2015)

Jacqueline Kolosov
| Reviews

 
Chad Parmenter’s Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti won the Snowbound Chapbook Award, selected by Kathleen Jesme. I read and loved Margaret Gibson’s Memories of the Future: The Daybooks of Tina Modotti during the late 1990s, so I immediately gravitated to Parmenter’s engagement with two of the twentieth century’s important photographers. First, a bit of context: for five years during the 1920s, Tina Modotti and Edward Weston became involved in a passionate partnership that played out in Mexico at a particularly vital time in the country’s history. To-gether, Modotti and Weston photographed Mexican citizens, revolutionaries, artists, and writers. Modotti learned the craft of photography from Weston and described it as “the most eloquent, the most direct means for registering the epoch.” In Modotti’s company, Weston transformed his identity as a fashionable portrait photographer into that of an artist capable of capturing a country and its people at a time of profound change.

Parmenter’s own relationship with Weston and Modotti began when he picked up one of Weston’s journals at a bookstore and was captivated by a voice that integrated technical language, confession, and the besottedness of the lover, a combination he makes manifest in the collection’s opening lines:

 
    Tina mia—this is the night after the night after I,
    spherical aberration, blur in your world, left. But I write
    to you, or, no, the you my gaze made—naked frame for my
    broken-open core....
 
    Not my patron sinner anymore, you crooned to me “Vaya con nada
    camerado mia,” already knowing I go with nothing but sight—you meant
    “my friend,” you said “my camera.” I said, “my light.” My words
    sounded strange to me then, as if someone spoke for me.
 
    You know there is no me—that “I” is a negative, is an image
    of someone else.
 
What Parmenter encountered in the journals was a persona, and it is this persona, or lens, that the sequence of undated prose poems speaks throughout the collection. It is an age-old trope in literature: the beloved as muse. What Parmenter does well is draw attention to the narcissistic tendency of the artist to recreate the beloved in his image or through his gaze. This first poem clearly enacts what happens when the muse refuses to be fixed, and as a result, the “I” becomes “a negative…an image of someone else.” The language, at times, becomes a bit too clever, but even a line like this works because Parmenter has essentially collaged a variety of relevant discourses in order to dramatize the aftermath of a love affair between two people who lived so intensely through the photographic medium.

Sex is a central and recurrent theme in the collection, and it is risky to write about sex in persona poems cast in the voice of an artist:
 
    Thighs I could still whisper apart—why did they lay so far outside
    my frame? But what a pretty, prison pattern radiates from that “her”
    —a lattice of cracks in the patio. And what a heart of dark hair at
    the root of her torso—here, in this negative, transfigured into some
    child of writing and lightning…
 
At moments like this one, which occurs midway through the collection, the atmosphere feels a little too close to that of an erotic novel, with photographic terms like “frame,” “negative,” and “transfigured” failing to salvage the overly heated language. This is one of the challenges of ekphrastic writing, and the particular challenge here is that Parmenter is acting as a mediator or medium for channeling Weston. At his best, Parmenter succeeds, leaving the reader with the feeling that Modotti was the muse who anchored Weston’s gaze, and once they parted, he never quite regained his sense of self. Ultimately, what Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti makes clear is that the muse may remain fixed for a period of time, but ultimately she has and will exert herself as a separate entity who won’t be stilled by the lover/artist’s stilling gaze.

Jacqueline Kolosov’s forthcoming memoir, Motherhood, and the Places Between, won the 2015 Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Her third collection of poetry is Memory of Blue. She serves on the faculty at Texas Tech, where she directs the creative writing program.

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Admit Everything: Everything Broken Up Dances by James Byrne (Tupelo Press, 2015); Admit One: An American Scrapbook by Martha Collins (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016)
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