Great-uncle August
peers out of the family tintype much
too seriously for a young boy.

Is he searching the darkness
out beyond the flash and smoke,
out here where we are yet unborn?

Probably the stiffer wool of Sunday
knee-pants itches to obsession
and his good boots pinch.

There are things he’d rather be doing
than holding still, staring at the birdie.
But this is what it takes to make a picture.

It is important. Momentous.
Archival. You can tell
because nobody smiles.

Once the posing’s done, there will be
loosening of buttons, ties, laughter
and lemonade out on the porch.

Great-uncle August’s eyes will
maybe twinkle then. There might be hugs.
This is the part we’ll never see.

33 responses »

  1. I’m glad that you provide an audio – it adds to the richness of the experience of this poem; and. incidentally, all your poetry, – a great addition.
    I especially enjoyed the stanza beginning :”Probably the stiffer wool ….” This is such a telling image and says much with a few well chosen words which immortalize.
    Thank you,

    • Adding audio began as an experiment but seems to have become a habit. For me it raises questions about poetry and reading in our time, and the various media for publication…even as I’m putting together a traditional book of my poems. Thank you for your comment–as always a booster, Jane!

  2. This is marvelous, Cynthia–every jot and tittle, such vibrant imagery. I could only enjoy the treat of hearing your voice for a second, as the plug in crashed–ahh well, such is life. Thank you for being my poet friend, whom I love to read–that gift suffices. Bless you.

    • It used to be such a big deal to have a photo taken, several generations ago…a far cry from the ubiquitous “selfies” of today. It’s probably because of rarity, and the fact that folks had to stand there so long, posing, that those old sepia prints are full of serious, non-smiling (miserable?) faces. Thanks, Lea

      • My pleasure Cynthia. One of the treasures I found when I bought my 350+ Year old house were four very large photographs. At least one would have been taken before the turn of the previous century. While the frames are very fragile and beautiful, they do need some restoration so are carefully stored. They absolutely have stories to tell me! x

  3. The picture is static, though the viewer (born or unborn) is not. And since we inevitably change, I submit that, in fine, the picture changes too. This theory may or may not apply to avuncular portraiture and is probably at odds with semiotician Roland Barthes. But does the august August smile off camera? A duplicitous rhetorical question indeed, but let me answer it by pointing out that it is the unknowable in life that keeps us coming back for more, and, upon further reflection, I surmise that it is the reason we read fiction, poetry, the secret declarations in mislaid billets-doux, the brilliant though incomplete ideas penned on paper napkins, the Farmers’ Almanac, and so on.

    And thank you for reading your augustly marvelβ€”it was quite a treat (as usual).

    • “In fine, the picture changes too….” Shades of Dorian Gray and our mutual friend Oscar. I have no way of knowing whether the sepia avuncular portraiture in my possession has changed; certainly the persons depicted have. As for Roland Barthes, I say it’s not a bad thing to be at odds with him or any of his cohort. (They may have poisoned “higher” education irreparably.) I like very much that you say “unknowable” rather than “the unknown.” It may indeed be what keeps me writing on a paper napkin and reading the Farmers’ Almanac. (By the way, the real Uncle August spelled his name with an ultimate “e”. French, of course.)

      I do love your comments. Thank you.

  4. The scene of description is so ordinary and yet, your writing brings together a picture that I can imagine if standing right alongside Uncle August posing – breathing in the time and importance of the moment. I love hearing the audio, your emphasis and playful drama with each word is for me a special treat.

  5. So nice to read Cynthia β€” and to listen to. And the scene you describe, utterly convincing and subtle. Something reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop (is it the careful description of a social moment? the cadences of speech?); but only in part. More please!

    • You are quite astute in detecting that EB and I might share a certain speech cadence, since we do share the same ethno-geographic provenance and stomping grounds–from the Maritime provinces of Canada to greater Boston to Maine. I guess we share many things, and I’m honored by that, though there are some important ways in which we differ greatly. Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging comment, John!

  6. What a wonderful image you captured here Cynthia. Oh those old ‘birdie’ photos!! We have a few in our ‘album’ which we bring out from time to time. You have captured the essence of the whole experience of the old professional photo session. I closed my eyes while I listened to you reading. You gave your words real life and the last line really ‘got’ me!

    • The obituaries in our local paper all seem lately to be accompanied by photos of the deceased, and one of the things that has set me wondering is the tendency to post a picture of someone –who has died at age ninety– that was taken at age twenty-five, or thirty…..Of all the dead moments (the past), which one truly captures “oneself”? I recently spent some time looking at old photos, and tried to pick among the ones that were taken of myself (I’ve posted some on my Miscellany page) but none of the photos captured how it feels to be here, now….

      Thanks, Christine…Glad you liked this one, too!

  7. I have a photo on display at the moment; it’s taken around the time of my mum and dad’s wedding and it is sepia in a studio. I say taken around because for some reason we have never been quite sure of,my grandmother (mum’s mother) wouldn’t allow any professional photos to be taken on the day. Her sister, however, was allowed such photos. We think it was something to do with disappointment in choice of husband! Anyway a few casual photos were taken on the day by guests and my mum and dad look to be on cloud nine with smiles a mile wide, laughter even. The studio one however… 😊

  8. You’ve captured this moment extremely well Cynthia, I’m sure that’s exactly what it was like for many of those old photography portrait moments – I can see Uncle August giving his best starched pose! πŸ˜€ And I’m absolutely certain he would have had itchy knee pants – poor boy!! πŸ˜‰

    I remember looking at a photograph of my Grandmother and her family many years ago, she was born in 1909, and I think the picture was taken in 1914. I could see they were all trying not too look too severe – a slight smile emerging! But my Grandmother – oh dear – she had thunder in her face, and looked like she wanted to kill the photographer. She couldn’t remember why she looked so angry, we had a good laugh about it! When I see starchy Victorians on old photos, I remember that conversation with my cheerful Grandmother, and re-evaluate what kind of people they actually were, I’m sure many of them were not much different than we are today. It would be wonderful to go in a time machine and find out – I think we might be quite shocked! 😯

    And thinking about those relaxing laughing moments after the photo, caused a set of sepia images to come back to mind. I Googled a little to find again this laughing couple, it’s so lovely to see them go from serous faces to complete collapse of laughter! And that website also has a whole load more laughing pictures – they are so good. Thought I’d share it with you, moments of laughter someone actually did manage to capture! πŸ˜€

    • That’s an interesting note about your grandmother. I recall seeing, in movies, what now seems like such a tedious process—the photographer standing behind the large boxy contraption, tucking his head under a black cloth, and the smoke when the flash popped. I know my forced smile would sour if I had to stand still for all that!

      And thank you for the great link to photos of smiling Victorians…you are so good at finding the odd wondrous item on the net….which must be why I enjoy your Curiosity Shoppe. Thank you again, Suzy!

  9. Pingback: Photographs (To Two Scots Lads) | sweettenorbull

  10. Cynthia,

    This is splendid. Our Victorian forebears were human too – just as warm, vital, flawed, noble and various as we today. And I love the way you have looked beyond the stiff sepia image to give us a sense of Great Uncle August, the living, breathing boy.

    β€˜Great Uncle August and Us’ – yes, truly we are connected now, and your poem will stay with me a long time.

    My very best,


    • Old family photos are fun to contemplate.
      (I’ve read on your site that you are the eldest of six siblings….I am the eldest of seven!)

      I was happy to receive the link above, in Suzy Hazelwood’s comment….and to see all those smiling Victorians!
      And also happy to receive your lovely comment. Thank you, Paul…

  11. I laid great emphasis to the words “important”, “Momentous” and “Archival” – just the right words for this poem, think. When I reached here “You can tell because nobody smiles.” I laughed somewhat quietly.

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