Introduction to Nonfiction — Portraits
In a lecture, Victoria Redel talks about walking down a street without her glasses on.
“Without seeing any precise detail, simply a human gesture, the gait of a walk, a length of color,” she said. “I was able to discern things about people.” She spots her sister from a blur in the distance by recognizing the style of her gait. This lesson in perception is granted by her eye doctor who took away her glasses for repair. The world is blurred but she still sees enough to get impressions. A night without glasses teaches her that clarity is more often found through obscurity.
In this non-fiction folio devoted to Portraits, each work is an exercise in taking off your glasses to see below the surface.
Sarah Klenbort’s vivid “Portrait of a Courtyard in Australia” begins, “Let me paint them for you now…” In streaks of bright colors, she shows us the children racing around the courtyard, though as she widens her lens, the portrait grows more complex. “Here, now, I’ve only shown you the bright colors and every portrait has some dark,” she writes, and adds another dimension to the essay with darker details.
In the stunning “Self-Portrait Studies” of Gabriela Herman, the view is oblique and the pieces show more than the whole. Likewise, in Matthew Clark’s “Notes to Be Used in the Making of a Portrait of My Neighbor,” he writes of his neighbor, “Only the paleness of his hands was visible, which I knew were not so delicate and doll-like as they might first appear.”
The word “portrait” comes from the Latin “portrahere,” meaning “to draw forth.” A moment in the life of a cashier unfolds a memory stuck in a loop in Tracy Strauss’ “Cashier.” She shows how each moment in our lives is connected to others hidden underneath. In “Language Portraits,” Nina Feng bends the non-fiction form to escape the limits of language with pictures, questions, and dialogue in the form of a script.
Harry Swartz-Turfle’s “Goodbye Portraits” is an introduction to a cast of characters, from the “Great Hudsonian Sparrow” to “Athena of the City.” Each painting is an essay contained in a frame. With lines and colors, he tells us, as one caption reads, “The Fuse Is Lit.”
Alessandra Castellanos’ opening view of Guatemala is of “drops of honeydew melon mist” and “a diesel gasoline splattered mackerel sky.” Colleen Kinder’s “Private Lessons” is as much a snapshot of Cairo as the women who navigate its streets. An excerpt of Oscar Hijuelos’ Thoughts Without Cigarettes begins with an invitation, “Pretend it’s sometime in 1955 or 1956 and that you are hanging over the roof’s edge of my building, as I often did as a teenager, looking down at the street some six stories below.”
In another place portrait, Quintan Ana Wikswo returns to the surreal in “Fossoyeur Languedoc,” with photographs that resemble objects seen through water, depicting a village with “more dead than living.”
Charlotte Matthews brings alive a statue in her poem “Actual Concrete Woman.” In another poem-portrait, Sarah Gambito’s “New Father” is “the one having to fly heavy with rain to a real nest where weak neck babies cry from a sideways wallet.” Joshua Unkel’s essay follows the ups and downs of a relationship through a series of paintings. In “Bully,” KP Liles illustrates one and many at once. The bully “rumble-barrels up the bus steps like a football team charging out the tunnel into the lighted stadium—pure, electrified punishment.”
With the bully at your heels, take refuge in Abigail Thomas’ “Memory Loss.” In a single line designed to erase worry in her grandchildren, she writes, “forget career, forget the future, forget existential worries, just get yourselves a couple of dogs and everything will be alright.” Her “Memory Loss” has the effect of Redel’s missing glasses—it blurs the edges and softens the lines.