Alexandra van de Kamp lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, the writer William Glenn. She is an Adjunct Professor of ESL at Long Island University and received her MFA in Poetry from the University of Washington in 1991. She lived in Madrid, Spain for six years, where she co-founded the bilingual literary journal, Terra Incognita. She has published poetry in journals such as Poetry Northwest, Red Rock Review, Washington Square, Tar River Poetry, Salt Hill and Talking River Review. She won the 2001 Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize from Wind Magazine for her chapbook, The Rainiest May in the Twentieth Century. In 2004, she collaborated with the artist Rebecca Aidlin to create a limited edition chapbook, entitled A Living Book, which will be featured in an art show at The Brooklyn Arts Exchange in late November/December. Her full-length manuscript, The Atmosphere of Objects, was a finalist for the Fifth Annual Tupelo Press Award for a first book of poetry. A new chapbook, The Photographerıs Interview, is forthcoming from the Premier Poets Chapbook Series.

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Terra Incognita

Three Poems by Alexandra van de Kamp


Sear-sucker suit of the soul, you cling like jelly wherever I go. No matter my despair (the look of the trees is full of fear) you stand by like a pet that never dies. I can hear you panting if I hold still, count my breath like a good little Buddhist girl (the trees, I tell you, are full of deer). But I forget you all the time—I am not diligent, I am not kind. The backs of my legs burn with your rabid kiss, your midnight licks. And, at noon, I am abandoned—pinned like a pin to this light-blind planet. Only come evening when the trees soften, give up their black flames to the careless pavement, do I feel at home (the trees, I tell you, are full of tears) and you grow like a closet on my back, like a door that lengthens and lengthens its one regret. Black window, I stare at you and know mystery is a shape we cannot name clinging to our every gaze. I stare and stare (the trees are full), and it grows late.


Dark comma of a life. Road we become when we lie down. The body a luminous plate the night lays itself upon. Our mind the witch's hut where all worry burns, our fears kindled in that phosphorous wound. Just think: no matter what we do under the bright umbrellas of sun, each night darkness robes us in its velvety caves, blurs us with the furniture and the cats, who trust the dark, lean into its many words. We are children: tiring so easily, needing to be held nightly by a hand pouring its shadow down the sky. Plants at dusk twitter like birds, sing between two alien worlds.


    In general the daguerreotype recorded only what stood still before the camera lens...and failed to register passing carriages, pedestrians moving through the streets, river traffic, or weather conditions."       —Metropolitan Museum of Art

Each life is an invention, and the tree that does not fuss in a breeze will last longer than you. It's 1839. The year Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre has pressed the shapes of things—buildings, bridges, still-lifes of classical figures—onto a silver-coated copper plate. In this photo of The Church of Saint Sulpice, Paris, the vaulted ceiling and walls rear up, indelible and permanent, while at the altar two people shimmer, feeble smoky columns the eye rushes over. This is the era in which chemists and engineers become artists—mixing chemicals and light—pressing the precise edges of a hard world onto the receptive iodine—eye of the copper plate. The early camera's slow exposure obscures what moves as if to suggest the human body's a whimsical, windy tunnel time ticks through.

Each moment is an invention, so press your nose to the glass that transparently warps your view. In one year, Parisian plate makers used more than five and a half tons of silver while, over the next two decades, millions of daguerreotypes were made, most of them portraits. If the model held still—chairs were fixed with a neck brace to hold the head—she or he could be saved for his or her brethren, embraced by this "mirror with a memory." Hold your breath, my dear, and see how long you can stand the sepia-toned stillness history requires of you.

Here, in a photo of a royal procession, there are no people, only a milky river of vague motion and then the bridge, the buildings. Even the royal carriage is a black burr—fuzzing at the edges. The river looks wispy, ghosting off out of the daguerreotype's possibilities. Memory is a fiction, a touched-up, photo-cropped relic, a chemical brew, a river blurring its own motion.

Having discovered ways to imprint the daguerreotype onto paper, people began to travel with this apparatus, bringing back images like this "Goddess of Victory" from the Acropolis, Athens, May 1850, in which the headless Nike ripples in the delicate folds of her wind-blown dress; a dress that has intricately survived the camera's slow grasp because she's carved from a stone slab. Gently crouched to one side, she reaches with one hand to tie her sandal—an ephemeral gesture, a flirtation with time and weather only stone could capture. One invention is always ready to lead to another.

In all these photos, nature is a mute witness. The day always seems on the verge of snow or rain—the sky gray as a pearl, waiting for something to occur. History is constantly overcast, reduced to a brooding tone as if it knew the metallic grimness the next century and a half would bring. Meanwhile, the sunlight in the courtyard of the Hotel d'Uzes is blonding the wide dirt path, but I don't notice. I'm too busy watching the tornado gray-green of the sky (from over-exposure) or the trees' tea brown leaves that burn away at the edges as their fluttering tips (uninvented, and not knowing what an invention is) work their way toward inevitable extinction.