Topiary Garden at Levens Hall, Cumbria, England (1971)
Photograph by Jonathan Williams 

A Palpable Elysium
Portraits of Solitude & Genius
Portraits of Solitude & GeniusHenri Cartier-Bresson suggests that “photography is pressing a trigger, bringing your finger down at the right moment.” If that’s all there is to it, I am just about in with a chance, as our English cousins say. It would still be pretentious for me to set up as Photographer in the same way I set up as Poet, Essayist, Publisher, Hiker, Bourgeoisophobe, and Dotty Anecdotist.

One hopes that “professionals” will simply allow me to be a literary gent who takes the odd tolerable picture. I wouldn’t recognize the Zone System if it bit me on my poor primitive posteriors, but, somehow, over the past 48 years (dating from Black Mountain College, 1951, where Aaron Siskind showed me the rudiments of what to do with a Rolleiflex), I have managed to be in front of a steady array of extraordinary individuals, and to show up in very rare places indeed.

With Rollei, Mamiyaflex, Hasselblad, and SX-70, I have pressed triggers in a very simple, straight-forward, square way. (My poems are even more laconic: Les Moore is more or less Les Moore.) I notice there is a lot of “quiet” in the pictures. Many were shot shortly after food and drink had been taken. You see people both relaxed and ruminating. These people were friends, not celebrities on the prowl. Many pictures were snapped in cemeteries and gardens and while poking around buildings. STOP LOOK (OCCASIONALLY) LISTEN seems to be have been the order of the day. The fact that I can, now & then, actually manage to load 120-film into the Hasselblad means we are in post-virtuoso hands.

I woke up one morning with the title, A Palpable Elysium, in my head and, at first, thought it was all mine. Little, of course, is ever all ours. Thus, I eventually re-encountered the two words in “Canto LXXXI,” by Ezra Pound, the one with the two glorious lines:

“What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross...”

It also is where he implores himself and all others to “pull down thy vanity.” So, I can only pray, with mentors as splendid as Cartier-Bresson and Ol’ Ez, that I have put images and words on paper that won’t waste your time. In the mountains where I live (North Carolina and Cumbria), people are naturally taciturn and worry about “a-hesitatin’” others. They are very “composed” people, not about to be rattled by what is going on in Soho and Chelsea and on 57th Street this season. EP again: “Learn of the green world what can be thy place...”

So, what we have here is a “home-made world,” to use Hugh Kenner’s term. I’ve tried to heed Joel Oppenheimer’s injunction: “Be there when it happens, write it down.”

I dedicate A Palpable Elysium to the incomparable (and mysterious) Thomas John Meyer— essential companion over 31 years; to certain saplings in the orphic grove and erotic thickets who like the way we do things (Michael von Üchtrup, Michael Heny, Anne Midgette, Reuben Cox, Gregory Hays, Jont Whittington, Greville Worthington, Alex Albright, Jim Cory, C.A. Conrad, Jeffery Beam, Mark Roberts, Keith Hale, Wendy Kramer, Ricky Garni, Tim Davis, Thomas Evans, Jeff Clark, Warren Liu, Matthew Stadler, Brian Mackenzie, Whit Griffin...); and to all those gentle, mature trees who still “abide” hereabouts: John Claiborne Davis, Robert Peters, Jess, Charles Henri Ford, Georgia Blizzard, Lou Harrison, Nancy Metcalf, Joan Wilentz, Harold & Mary Cohen, and many way on down. And to our most excellent cat, H-B Kitty (aka Orange Doodle, The Marmalade Meatloaf, Long Cinnamon and The Terror of Tiger Woods).

Pass the biscuits— and do hush!

Skywinding Farm, Scaly Mountain, North Carolina
8 March 1999