REVIEW by Christopher S. Buck
I’ve been spending quality time with the recently published book The Profound M, a volume of poems by Tamsin Smith paired with found photos from the collection of Matt Gonzalez. The book was recently published by FMSBW Press. FMSBW is the publishing effort of Matt Gonzalez. I still don’t know what those letters stand for but I’m not opposed to some mystery in my life.
The introduction by Gonzalez is a compact, dedicatory essay titled NEVER LOST — Reflections on the Art of Found Photography and it is on point. As a fellow collector of found photographs for over 20 years, and as a former stock photography researcher for Photonica in New York City & San Francisco, I was nodding my head faster than most beats I listen to.
For those new to found photography, Wikipedia defines it as “photographs, usually anonymous, that were not originally intended as art but have been given fresh aesthetic meaning by an artist’s eye.” They can be incorporated or merged within other art pieces or stand alone on their own merits. Some bands have used found photography on album covers. Thinking here of my two favorites: Beirut Band’s Gulag Orkestar (2006) and The Flying Club Cup (2007).
Gonzalez’s Intro opens with a quote from André Breton and what he meant by the “Profound M”. The phrase refers to Memory, a theme stated by Gonzalez that ties the vintage snapshot photos together throughout the book, with the accompanying poems by Smith. Gonzalez outlines the reasons these talismins capture our interest and the growing recognition that snapshots are contemporary art objects.
Less familiar terrain for me was Tamsin Smith’s poetry. Though I own a couple of collections of her poetry: Between First and Second Sleep and Displacement Geology (both published by FMSBW), I had yet to do the deeper dive her poetry deserves. In The Profound M, Smith’s poems are paired across the page from the images, which she selected for this publication. Gonzalez’s limited guidance was pitch perfect:
“These brief moments in time are augmented by Tamsin Smith’s beautifully evocative poems. They are not meant to be literal, as if describing the action of the photograph; in fact, they would fail if they were to try. The poems offer a fresh way of looking at the photographs, an entry way into viewing their hidden mysteries.”
Some of my favorite lines of poetry in this volume are found in “The Turn” (p. 36) and it’s no coincidence that the same three lines are repeated on the back cover, a fact I failed to notice until long after I had jotted the lines down into my notebook:
We used to wear our poems so tight
Anyone could tell
Just by looking
Bonus points to San Francisco based painter Emilio Villalba for pushing for the image of the floating beach balls in the pool, to serve as the book cover (pg 6). This detail was gleaned by paying attention to their Instagram posts. Your next three follows should be: @slipstreamer11 / @fmsbw / @emilio_villalba.
In the close to the Intro, Gonzalez reveals that all but three of the photographs in this volume are anonymous, with these three images coming from the families of Smith and Gonzalez. This is why you should never skip an Intro — challenge accepted! I’ve picked out two from Gonzalez, and I’m circling back again to finger the third, for Smith. Scavenger hunt!
As San Francisco’s Urban Forester/City Arborist, my found photo collection focuses on people enjoying trees and other forms of the natural world. Families seemed to love getting on their Sunday best and standing in front of the nearest tree at hand, to commemorate various events.
I also collect old found snapshots of natural landscapes and wilderness — without people present — as if to tuck it away for evidence, to prove it all really did exist not too long ago. I hid them, protecting them with the same level of care as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault does its seed bank in the Arctic.
Enjoying the Curated
Can you still enjoy found photographs if presented in a volume like ‘The Profound M’ or within a gallery setting? The answer is yes, of course, but it is a different experience. One of the strengths of The Profound M is the large number of snapshots included — plenty to flip through.
Contents May Settle
But what of the images themselves? Only now am I realizing that people are in nearly every image of ‘The Profound M’ and even those contain human objects such as beach balls, an auto, a caged bird. One of the many joys of the found photo collector, even if you don’t yet realize you’re a collector, is that you can specialize in the obscure, glory in the common.
The Tinkerer, the Thinker and the Entrepreneur
What has Smith curated from Gonzalez’s collection of found photography? There is something here for the tinkerer, the thinker and the entrepreneur. The visual impact is to lift up, elevate, honor the indomitable will of the individual — if ultimately rescued from obscurity we’ll never know, but we can view them in their quiet moments, in their heroic feats of strength and movement, or as they clown around with friends. Framed by the dark backdrop of history and multiple wars, there is a diversity of people and experiences which makes this collection familiar — kind of feels like the San Francisco Bay Area — diversity rich — what the rest of the country will resemble in years to come.
If this visual description is too “feel good” for you, no worries, Dr. Feelgood is present among many of these images with smoke in the air, drinks poured, people getting their groove on. Feeling it. And the day after? That too. The Surreal is also present, cutting down the horizon like de Chirico’s distant train.
Several of the snapshots in this collection are Smithsonian worthy. As it turns out many of these photos were purchased by Gonzalez from Robert E. Jackson, whose collection was exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 2007. The show was titled “The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978: From the collection of Robert E. Jackson.” Though it is not the end goal with most found photography, see my “Companion Appendix” to learn which images stood out to me as Smithsonian quality.
A year ago I viewed “Dented Universe” (p. 157) on social media, shared by Gonzalez, and studied it quite a bit, with that bow and arrow parallel to the shadow of the person holding it, aiming at nothing we could see, and the chance, mystery-infused cropping. When The Profound M was released this year, my pump had been primed.
In this collection of poems, Smith’s verse is more earthborn than celestial. The found photos and poems all contain people or reference people within the images and poems. There’s also a veritable arc of fauna, wild and domestic, found in both the visual and poetic. Water, in all its forms, binds the two. Sure the heavens and the stars are invoked, as they should be from time to time, but the enduring vision is towards the earth beneath our feet and our surroundings. No coincidence, I just realized, that another collection of Smith’s poetry is titled Displacement Geology.
What’s not present in the poetry, in these found photos? Many institutions are pleasantly absent among the found photos but the verse contends with these three: histories of war, oppression and discrimination. It took me a while to make this observation about the visual and the lack of institutions found among them. One exception is an urban school playground (p. 142). This lack of institutional or governing presence among the images is consistent with the theme of the poetry and snapshots: the dignity of the individual and their search for self, at times with the natural world as guide, at times with just a thread of intuition to cling to (“Awake Awake p.45”, “Semaphore p. 75).
This volume also contains poems of desire, poems of friendship, poems of family, poems of poems, and poems of war, history and culture.
Two poems of history and culture form a sonic boom and meet us on a New York City dance floor in the early 1970s with beats thumping in the poem “The Turn” (p. 39) and LSD dissolves some edges of the Cold War in “October 1969” (p. 57). What happened to the quiet contemplation securely in place in the other poems? These two poems knock our stockings off, remind us that the ’60s and ’70s actually happened, and left marks visual and hidden.
Additional poems of war or isolation are present in “Another Cure At Troy” p. 33, “Pacific Theater” p. 77, and “Semaphore” p. 79, with this latter poem offering hope:
Your mother sang in a language she
Had just begun to speak and no flag
Much less two to wave together
Not to surrender but to signal
Peace as visible
Regarding poems of poems, I found plenty of references to poetry and verse, and even what I liken to a playful update to Browning’s “A Grammarian’s Funeral” is the poem “The Lioness Dispatches” (p. 95) which is such a warm post-modern ode to a respected editor. The photo across the page is perfect. I imagine the person to be an editor, rubbing face with a smile and thinking “oh no she didn’t,” knowing full well, she sure did.
How I spent my time with The Profound M
This summer, shortly after the book arrived in the mail, after my first extended sit down with the book, I didn’t know what I would write, I just knew that I wanted to write about it. It took a few more months to find the time necessary for a close review.
Because light is faster than the speed of thought, I naturally experienced the photos faster than the words. Then I returned to enjoy both the poetry and snapshots together.
The final step was to read the poems with no images in mind to prove what I already knew: the poems clearly stand on their own without the photos.
Only then could I ask myself, what do both contain?
With 91 poems included in The Profound M, this is a substantial volume of poetry. By comparison, Smith’s Displacement Geology contains 45 poems. On average, the poems are shorter here, as they need to fit across the page from each image, and many are a half-page or less.
There is a responsibility to the strangers in these found snapshots, to choose words carefully. As Gonzalez outlined in the Intro, “these photographs are only ‘found’ insofar as they have been dispersed after the original owner of the keepsakes, or the families of who treasured them, were no longer able to store them safely.” I reflected quite a bit on the factors that place these snapshots in estate sales or flea markets vs. the anonymous garbage bins of humanity. How do the images survive and who gets to tell their story?
Enter the Poet
The poem “All Sorts Plus Weather” (p.51) answers this challenge. The poem is across the page from an image of a young white woman drinking from a public fountain in the middle of a well-maintained park. Taken in the 1940s, the cultural-historical reference to any fountain in a black & white photo has to conjure images of our country’s history of segregation and racism. The image-thought comes to mind immediately of two fountains, with a sign above each, one states “colored” and the other states “white”.
In the shadowy background, in deeper shade, there are people sitting on a bench, race and ethnicity indiscernible. The poet writes:
Pure white swan of coy permission
Fairytales and public parks happily
Belonging ever after assured…
…We do not see your fists but hope
Perhaps they clench beyond
Our view and your own story
Simmer for the unquenched
Characters of shared history
I value Smith’s truth telling in what others might have described as a Surrealist dream in the foreground of this image. Not dream, but the nightmare of reality for many, who would require permission to drink from this public font. Other images in this collection touch on the Surreal, but this is not one of them. It’s a quick snapshot, but we can only enjoy its aesthetics when we imagine the subject to be simmering with social, political and economic justice for the oppressed.
The first half of this poem directly references masking up during the pandemic, and while the writer pauses behind her “filter” to consider the meaning of safety, when the verse above follows, the filter also represents the lens through which each individual views their world. Left unsaid, I think this poem is also a statement about who chose to mask up right away, not just for personal safety, but for the safety of those most vulnerable, and those who continue to do more than just grumble about masks and freedom.
Accepting the responsibility to speak to these images was no small assignment that Smith assumed when she curated this collection of images. Another deft touch is in “Cover Girl” (p. 69) where a young woman of color sits on a couch, hiding her face behind a glamour magazine featuring a headshot of a white fashion model, nearly in place of her own.
The struggle to be
Always has been
Even more so perhaps
In the age of gloss
After the 2nd and 3rd developing stanzas the poem closes:
But your warm brown limbs
Reveal where beauty originates
Elbows and a mind that knows
Pages don’t turn themselves
From an Americana perspective, this is a great living room setting, with contrasting patterns jumping off the couch and curtains. A sisterhood poem at first, but now that I’m looking at the magazine cover more closely, the model is also holding an infant. So now it’s a motherhood poem — the need to look like a cover girl even while parenting? As a man, I can attest that the age of gloss finally started arriving to our own screens — no shortage now of people telling me through image and text, how to be. Have we come a long way, baby?
The poet could not write this collection without squaring the aesthetic gifts found in the images with the historical fact that these were not taken in “the good old days” or when America used to be “greater” than it isn’t now. This history is present here, in the poems. But the most substantial theme found in these poems and in the images is personal growth and transformation — an individual’s search for their own identity or meaning, which transcends history and politics, even when those forces form most of the mold.
Back to the scavenger hunt:
Placing three snapshots of their own into this collection, is both a fun scavenger hunt for the reader-viewer and allows us to reflect on how our own snapshots may someday end up in the hands of strangers — the impermanence of possession.
“Raccoon in the Old Grove” (p. 16)
I believe this is the poet Tamsin Smith as a young kid, based on her poetry, she grew up around animals and clearly was a kid who carried sticks and twigs around in her hair, spreading the seeds of field and forest by tunneling and helping us get back to our own secret spaces. Like animals that change patterns or transform, at their own pace, their own rhythms, Smith makes that connection to a young girl cutting her bangs and playing in her mother’s dress.
Is the answer to why you did not play
With dolls but loved animals…
The verse continues for a few lines and ends with this sweetness:
And the poem a man will write
One day to assure you
He sees you standing there
Favorite poem alert:
“Deep Song” (p. 179)
With its prowess of poetry and prose, the phrase “predation may pulse the pattern” and “she is young / can still love / her body” and an enigmatic finish “look at the size of you”.
The Big Glean
The portal to this collection of poetry by Smith is best glimpsed through her previous collection of poetry Displacement Geology and the poem “Uncertainty Factor” (p.40). The line “Memory is an organ of selection” jumped out at me as speaking to The Profound M and these found photos and poems and references to the Surreal. While it is often necessary to attempt to define poems, a poet, or even what a single snapshot may mean, I still like some uncertainty in my life. Here is the close to the poem:
All around us are examples of Nature’s rightness
If not exactness —
Memory is an organ of selection
She speaks in portals
Sequitur non sequitur
I like when people acknowledge the uncertain, suggested in the title of this poem and other lines within it. Not to the point of conspiracy but from a place of basic humility in having to move through this world.
With that disclaimer, no review could be taken seriously if it lacked the dreaded opining of poetic influence. I like reading poets who teach me new words or associations, cause me to look things up. That’s the case with Tamsin Smith’s poetry, but not unnecessarily so. Poets should be a bit more well-read than the reader. You shouldn’t be more flexible than the yoga instructor.
On poetic influence, it was as easy as this: which poet did I pick up and read more of, while reading this collection, and while contemplating this review?
Hands down, it was that former resident of my hometown, Wallace Stevens.
There are some breadcrumbs. Like Smith’s bio on IG: “Poet Whistling. Or just after.” A clear reference to “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and the use of the word “Harmonium” in the poem above, which is the title to Stevens’ own collection of verse, published back in 1923. The “I harmonium” also referencing Dylan Thomas’ historical novel ‘I, Claudius’. The double reference like an inside-out, outside-in Escher painting, a Mobius strip Venn diagram. Where does influence start and stop?
What do I think of Smith as a poet? This is what I think. There are two extreme examples of the urban cyclist. One is unsteady, looks over their shoulder, and should not be on the road. You spot them a block away, they make you so uncomfortable.
Then there is a cyclist that is cruising along, steady with the bars, confident, focused on what’s ahead. Minding the small potholes and merging and threading pedestrians and autos. Maybe gets cut off too, but it’s the streets, doesn’t even waste energy or think to flip the bird. You trust them because they know what they’re doing. So much so, you’d even try to keep up. Follow. In their slipstream. With no intention to pass.
In life, the poet Tamsin Smith is involved with environmental advocacy and is also a painter. But Melville wasn’t referring to her when he wrote the famous line “heed it well, ye Pantheists,” in Moby Dick, when the narrator nearly falls from the crows nest while gazing out across the ocean, too enthralled with the visual, too lost in the Sublime. Smith isn’t navel gazing, she is studying the functions, incorporating it. Looking beneath the surface of both flora and fauna, picking up lessons from these interactions. @slipstreamer11 isn’t going to slip from the crow’s nest.
The fault lines and fractures found in Smith’s poetry are speaking to more than geology. They trace and define the social and the historical, and the political, within our attempts as organizing societies.
Nothing wrong with Latin
The Director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Lan Samantha Chang, back many years ago when she was my undergrad Rhetoric professor, observed that I used a lot of Latinate words in my writing. I didn’t even know what that meant so I had her explain the comment. That’s when I realized how much each word matters. Perhaps it’s also why I’ve been drawn to the poetry of Gary Snyder, with his use of more Germanic, one-syllable words, to help train my own ear. Then again, it was just an undergrad Rhetoric class, not a poetry workshop.
Guess who else mixes the Latinate with the Germanic? Wallace Stevens. Smith too, uses many short, lone-syllable, chisel strikes with her words than the longer, multisyllabic. To “eliminate” the Latinate would be to hate language. It all needs to be in play. I would also add mathematic and geometric and scientific to describe some of the words that often crop up in Smith’s poetry, and to good effect. Science ascendant. With the musical, to soften the edges.
Referring to a poet as a Language poet or Imagist poet is like referring to an athlete as athletic.
Caution, poem ahead!
Language involved, may conjure images.
We all have to consume the visual in life and decide (or not!) what that will be. All poetry and all language are visual and conjure images. I’d argue that the poetry across the page from the images in The Profound M are more visual than the photos themselves.
In the opening dedication to The Profound M André Breton writes that Surrealism will usher us into death. My call and response is that everything will usher us into death. The secret societies and mystery he hints at in the rest of the quote might not be too secret after all.
Snapshot photos and poems are attempts to stop time, to hold onto memory and thought. These found photos and the poems gathered here, have slipped the knot, and will live on, destinations unknown.
P.S. The pro-FOUND M. Found. Found memories. Here’s to making and finding more of them, wherever photos and poems may be found.
To purchase The Profound M: https://fmsbwpress.com/
To learn more about Tamsin: https://tamsinspencersmith.com/
The long-form version of this review & reverie, will soon land here: https://www.christopherscottbuck.com/