by Beth McDermott
I came across F-374, a photograph by Jerry Takigawa, in a small shop in Carmel Valley Village, California. Among teak salad bowls and wrought iron birdcages, F-374 was displayed over a half-moon console table crowded with miscellaneous gifts. A person could have easily missed the photograph while admiring wood pillar candleholders, or while lifting and tilting a silver-handled serving platter. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave the half-moon console table because the objects in the photograph at eye-level were vaguely familiar. And yet their familiarity was made strange by their arrangement: three rows of white and cream circular objects were framed by four rectangular orange objects against a dark and blurry background image. The objects pinned against the seeming-to-move backdrop reminded me of a film paused with opening credits onscreen. I wanted to know what the objects were. The white ones hovered at the surface of the photograph, as if I could reach my hand through the glass and pick one up.
Why do we want to know what we’re looking at, whether that’s art or living cells? In the poem “Van Leeuwenhoek: 1675,” the poet Linda Bierds imagines the first scientist to describe cells and bacteria observing “a spider’s spinnerets” and “the tail-strokes / of spermatozoa.” Van Leeuwenhoek uses his own “hand-ground” lenses to study microscopic details invisible to the naked eye:
Visible? he is asked, at the market, or the stone tables
by the river. The lip of the cochineal? Starch
on the membranes of rice? But of course—
though a fashioned glass must press and circle,
tap down, tap down, until that which is, is.
Until that which is, breaks to the eye.
What does it mean to “tap down, tap down, until that which is, is”? I think Bierds is describing the literal mechanism of Van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope, as well as what it feels like to know what you’re looking at. But her stanza break is purposeful. Before it, there’s perceived stasis: “that which is, is.” The lack of explanation and the period both give a strong sense of finality. It’s as if viewing the microscopic details of a cochineal insect or rice grain makes either completely knowable. But that finality is only temporary, and the white space acts like the place where Van Leeuwenhoek recognizes that there’s more to see or learn. The first line of the next stanza is repetitive, but the line ends in a new way. “That which is” no longer just “is”; it’s not reaffirmed, it’s revised: “Until that which is breaks to the eye.” Bierds’s choice of diction is intriguing. Van Leeuwenhoek is thinking metaphorically—that is, the thing being magnified doesn’t actually break apart; he sees it from another angle, or in a new way. Van Leeuwenhoek tells a story to compare the experience of seeing through a microscope to the breaking of a seed pod:
It is much like the purslane, he tells them,
that burst from the hoofbeats of horse soldiers:
black seeds long trapped in their casings, until
the galloping cracked them.
In a comparison of exquisite beauty, Bierds likens the thing that breaks to Van Leeuwenhoek’s eye to purslane that didn’t flower until horse-riding soldiers cracked open the seed casings. For the past few years, I have thought about this poem in relation to Takigawa’s F-374: were the objects in the photograph like seeds trapped in their casings?
Still standing before the half-moon console table, it wasn’t long before I knew what the objects were. Moving closer was like watching them came into focus. Suddenly I knew they were plastic caps, some of them sand-encrusted and misshapen, others well preserved. Previously there’d been no perforated rim, no vertical ridges that created friction against the lip of a bottle. But just as soon as these details became fixed, questions arose that made me reexamine the photograph. The caps’ arrangement, surrounded by what I now realized were orange BIC lighters, still made them unfamiliar to me. Did the artist intend for me to see plastic caps in a new way, as if my previous perspective of them—one-time use items I simply discarded—had been far too narrow-minded?
It wasn’t until I took the photograph home and searched Takigawa’s work online that I learned about the context of F-374. It’s part of a series titled False Food that features plastic from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Reading statements from curators and the artist drew my attention to the Laysan albatross, or Phoebastria immutabilis: a large seabird imperiled by plastic in the ocean. Often at night, this bird skims the ocean surface for food that’s increasingly plastic and therefore “false”; it then feeds the plastic to its young, who die from starvation. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t initially recognized plastic caps as caps, perhaps because they were arranged in an aesthetically appealing way. I was drawn to everyday objects that I tried to avoid but no doubt encountered on a regular basis, even if by walking past the waist-high refrigerators at the far end of the check-out aisle. Whether I’d been foolish or not, I recognized that viewing F-374 required that I be open to re-vision, as if Takigawa had created a photo replete with its own stanza break, during which time I would see the vaguely familiar objects for what they were. But that experience of re-vision serves a greater purpose if the viewer questions the photograph and learns about the albatross, for whom mistakenly identifying plastic caps as food is deadly. In the shop, I couldn’t actually pick up what I believed to be aesthetically appealing objects because this was only an image of how such objects might look to another being.
In Bierds’s poem, after Van Leeuwenhoek compares the magnified thing that breaks to his eye to purslane, he continues to imagine the soldiers’ journey:
By winter, the snows crossed over the flanks
of the horses, felling them slowly. And the soldiers,
retreating, so close to survival, crept
into the flaccid bellies. Two nights,
or three, hillocks of entrails steaming like
Long after the purslane effloresces, the soldiers must crawl inside the horses’ bodies to survive. It’s fitting that, after Van Leeuwenhoek has remarked on the powerful magnification a microscope lends his vision, he then places the soldiers at the height of purslane. They’re practically encased by that which had previously made them conquerors. What’s above is simply snow.
Ironically, the very personality that likes to feel in control of what she’s looking at is most likely to learn from F-374. In Feeling as a Foreign Language, Alice Fulton writes that if the dominant group is to learn about the subordinate group, they “must actively pursue awareness of the unendorsed.” I didn’t start out actively pursuing the albatross—I started by wanting to know the everyday objects Takigawa has de-familiarized. But F-374 led me to empathize with the albatross via the unique perspective Takigawa had the imagination to create. When I view the photograph, I’m looking at the caps and lighters as if from the perspective of a bird looking down at the ocean below. The caps float at the surface of the photograph as if I could reach my hand through the glass and pick one up. I’m transported from my perspective to that of an albatross flying long distances in search of food. For a brief time, the caps are a harvest.
Beth McDermott is a poet whose essays and reviews about art and ecology can be found in American Book Review, Kenyon Review Online, the Spoon River Poetry Review blog and Kudzu House Quarterly. She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, IL.