Thursday, October 1, 2020

Genevieve Kaplan : Light Experiments, by Madeleine Barnes

Porkbelly Press, 2018

          Light Experiments is a pocket-sized, hand-made chapbook composed of a series of black and white photographs. The nineteen images presented by poet and visual artist Madeleine Barnes are framed by a Gwendolyn Brooks’ quote that opens the book, and an artist statement that ends it. Aside from these words, and the traditional front- and backmatter (title, colophon, etc.), we “read” the chapbook solely through our encounters with Barnes’s images.
          The photographs overall are quite dark; a black background unifies the images, and darkness is one bold method of coherence. The cover stock and end sheets of Light Experiments are black. The first photograph in the book is about 80% black; it depicts two trailing pale arms in the lower right corner (the dark-shirted figure is running off the page), one hand holding a sparkler dropping matchsticks of light along the bottom edge of the page. The rest of the page is darkness. The darkness overall is cleverly cohesive, and the presentational choices by the poet and publisher make this chapbook into not just a collection of images, but rather a beautifully produced art object that we want to spend more time with.
          The other theme of this chapbook is, of course, light. As we turn Barnes’s pages, we encounter light in traces, zigs, spirals, flashes, waves, circles, and webs. As in the initial image, we find the lit or shadowed body also on these pages, but these forms are frequently obscured or cut off. We glimpse lit up arms, faces, necks, ankles, or even the glowing outline of the darkened body. We also see shadowed sections of bodies – a torso; or a torso and arms; a torso, arms, and head; or upreached arms. In some photographs, like on the pages that “depict a young woman in a shimmering dress” (as noted on the “acknowledgements” page), the human forms here must be actively sought out. Reading Light Experiments, our eyes first encounter darkness, then light, then the body.
          Barnes writes, in the “artist statement,” “I experimented with light…to evoke the same energy and sensations that language-based poetry might,” and I agree that she accomplishes this in Light Experiments. As a reader, I found it very pleasurable to turn the pages and look for links between images, movements and textures of light. Barnes’s manipulations of light, using “matches, sparklers, moonlight, sequins, timers, apertures, flash, motion, layers…” evokes a kind of written language. In a photograph taken in what appears to be a park at night, readers can imagine the overlapping and developing ideas of a poem while looking at the circles and arcs crisscrossing the left side of the page; we trace the lines of light as they thicken and bend, as they echo off into the darkness of the grass behind. We are invited to imagine locations, movements, stories behind the foregrounded light traces. This activity, looking slowly and carefully beyond what is highlighted, feels much like reading a poem.
          While the photographic pages most often read as shadowy and ominous, thinking about the process behind creating them is potentially much more joyful. On the page we might see thin slashes and crisscrosses of light against darkened trees, and a corner of pale sky peeking out, but if we consider the movements—by the body, the arm, the fire, the photographer—and materials necessary to capture that particular light pattern on film, then we can also begin imagining the experience. I appreciate that Light Experiments captures moments of process, and I am happy that in thinking about process I feel invited to imagine the bodily forms partially depicted in these images also as wholes, dancing and gesturing and leaving traces in the world at night. 
          Barnes’s artist statement points out “this photographic chapbook has no linear narrative, and constructs an experience that will be different for every viewer;” here, I’ve offered my experience of reading and exploring Light Experiments. I hope that you will pick up a copy too, so that you may compare it with your own.

Genevieve Kaplan is the author of (aviary) (Veliz Books, 2020), In the ice house (Red Hen, 2011), and four chapbooks, including one forthcoming with above/ground press. She lives in southern California where she edits the Toad Press International chapbook series, publishing contemporary translations of poetry and prose. Find her online at

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