“Secure the shadow ‘ere the substance fade” was a popular daguerreotypist’s
advertising slogan for the making of postmortem images of loved ones.
It appears on being at first glance an infant
asleep before the fact of death is clear:
a boy who still looks like a girl—the mother
loath to cut his light fine hair—laid out
on a couch, its back of ornate, dark-carved wood
all there is of the room, which very well
could have been the photographer’s studio
she had traveled to—how far?—with the body.
The photograph contains the whole of it:
he wears a white gown that might have been
for the christening, no shoes, his plump hands
posed, folded, dimpled, the hands
of a healthy child, the face still round with baby fat.
Whatever took him, then, took him quickly—
whooping cough, pneumonia, a fever,
something common that left no mark, and while
the posture is of sleep, the heavy-lidded
inward gaze of the eyes, not quite closed,
makes no pretense of it. She might have lived
to be one of the women expressionless
in other photographs. She might have borne
other children who lived and in surviving her
let go this image they must have feared. And so
with some reluctance, I purchase its further
removal from them, from her—making mine
this orphaned but still secure correspondence
with all that is about to disappear.
The caption’s rough cursive records that the girl
in the photograph has been dead nine days,
the mother refusing to part with her only daughter—
the rigor having come and gone, the body
posed seated, posture flawless—head turned
so that she gazes away slightly to her left,
at something just beyond the gold-embossed
frame in thoughtful enthrallment. Nine days
since the first night of this, the bathing, viewing,
and then the desperate bed of ice, until
the mother at last succumbed to insist on this
familiar: a book in her daughter’s right hand,
her left thumb holding down the page, place marked
as though in a passage to which she will return.
The photographer may not enter this house,
the boy dead from scarlet fever, so the closed
window also frames the body, shutters
open wide as though for light. He lies
on top of the made bed, wearing his winter
jacket and a scarf, hair neatly combed, face toward
the lens, even as his gaze disobeys, as though intent on
the stubborn sky instead, refusing this.
This one a stereo card, the girl
appears to the naked eye doubled, lying
on her side in a bed all white, beneath
a dark-filled window curtained with delicate lace.
In her arms a cat, quite alive and nervous—
mouth open—blurs its face in the turning,
about to escape this embrace made strange.
Around its neck—the bell she had fastened,
to keep safe the birds she might have loved
in equal measure, perhaps, or merely
decorative, the small cheerful sounding
of return, the smaller sound of vanishing.
Some of the youngest children have wasted
into the appearance of the very old,
the simple failure to thrive common
as it is irreversible, and so time
for a photograph before as well, taken
with toys, a rocking horse or doll, a wicker
carriage or favorite pair of shoes—one child
posed in a high chair with a bowl and spoon.
And some have their hands tied as though in bondage;
this is, the photographer’s notes instruct,
to prevent displacement, the slow-certain
restlessness of the body that does not die.
Too many, then, for such close study:
like the living, they become alike,
or of a type—the infant twins
in a shared casket, the mother and child,
the living brother made to pose touching
the shoulder of the other. There are, after all,
only so many frames—rooms and windows,
cradles and caskets encased within
these smaller chambers crafted of gold, silver,
and skeletal leaves, only so many ways
to look until the light changes, fades, is lost,
the pane—the lens—darkening from glass to mirror,
until the substance of the eye sees itself
outside the self, and then can look no further.