Finalist

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (Photography, 1855)

The relationship between a photograph
and reality is complicated …complicated at best.
– Errol Morris

 

Offered up for discussion are two photos
preserving a moment: one real, the other
slightly less. When photography edged away

from alchemy into science. The infamous firsts
of war, an arranged image: hand-sized cannonballs
like elephant shit riddling the land – an acned face,

depressed, unrecognizable, with no family
farms, promenade, wheat; no sugar.
No warrior gallantry, just yellowing photos:

long dead men posed without action. Shadows
beneath the small, useless dung
-balls of war persist with misshapen stories,

now feeding us. A flawed, candid photo
in an old album. My mother has
two photos of you & I before I was three,

before you died and turned sepia. Your I.V. bag,
just behind your head and the devil’s ivy
dangling from the macramé holder, hidden from me

with the family secrets; our noses – burning
road flares. Your sad robe, a draped memorial flag
outside of a holiday. You: splayed

polyester collar, a brown eagle in creased slacks,
but really, you’re as pale as you are now
dead; pushing me on a trike, American streamers

protruding from the handles – tiny rockets

erupting from my palms. A petite sailor’s cap,
perfectly askew compliments the navy turtleneck
and my apple cheeks. Our exquisite patriotism

begs Rockwell to anticipate a misplaced salute
– two truths and a lie. In my friend’s home,
two photos of his parents: their shotgun wedding,

vacant teenagers – they are children staring
through the lens with full-stops for eyes,
dashes for lips, and ellipses for words;

the other, two adults with smile-lines,
like mud buttressing a damn, and generations
bookending their shoulders.

His mother familiared me to the sorcery
in her kitchen and pots. His father
whispered our culture and language

to my child. Their accents and voices are
emotional triggers before fear and love.
But there’s comfort in how her voice rises

and falls exactly in the middle of Mijo.
No seas soldado. No te metas en la guerra.
Vete al colegio. I’m still waiting for a dream

where you speak to me:
say I’m good, call me son,
and see your watermarked image.

Instead, I keep seance with your brother,
in my dreams, while two photos phantom
through my life without your voice,

or hefty touch – two amber images
in my head. Like a Valley of Shadows,
a seeded creation, a reaction to what

others held in their hearts. No progenitor sharing
stories like food falling from a bird’s mouth,
or raining thunder on me. This vacuous space

making me my own father;
decoding problems laid at my child’s feet.
Instead of photos, I leave her

stories my grandfather gifted me,
like that of your dying wish thrust on him,
Te encargo mis hijos. El recién nacido

te necesitará más. Your gossamer
-thin words held in his wallet
– a promise carried like legal tender.

But there are no photos of he & I
in an album, so I rope together what words
of his are branded into the soft gray matter.

Framing myself within them and his voice,
lingering under long dead stars and your shadow
– a slightly less accurate depiction of your absence.

 

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