Richard Jackson’s Photo Poems

Editor’s Note: the following poems were written in response to photographs taken by the author. Each photo and poem functions as a pair.


Breath fills the decayed tree. The sky is still
a syllable. Light lives inside those wings. We have
no word to describe the insects’ tremors beneath
the bark, or to measure the currents between here
and the next tree. What do we know? The night
won’t fall as we like to say, and I’ll wait till
the last star introduces itself though most of them are
galaxies. Droplets of light make an unreadable
transcript on the water. The world starts to mention
the promises we used to recite like a litany. The bird
knows each name is a superstition, each origin has
already taken flight, already landed, invisible, unbearable.

Canyon de Chelly, AZ

Sometimes we push so hard into the earth we leave
The handprint of desire. Without rocks there is no soul.
So many figures keep disappearing into the earth.
The wind against the rocks is not the wind. It is
Spirit. The rocks wear it like a skin. You can hear
The voice of the slaughtered in the light that echoes
From 1805 and the other end of the canyon. It has
Come a long way to touch us. The sound of the flute
Player and the man who dances to that silent music
Or is stunned into silence at our own ignorance
Show how dangerous it is to love the earth. Sometimes
The dust picks up and the hands sift its memories.
When was it we first needed words to touch each other?


It must be the child has turned to call us to follow.
The cart is filled with the harvest. Ahead of them
The road can’t decide between harvest and planting.
The camera has refused to read an invisible dust
That rises like prayer. They are headed towards mounds
That are man’s early attempts to reach heaven.
A hidden road turns left. Not yet dusk but already
The stars are waiting to drink the darkness.
My gaze here stumbles through lost centuries.
The early moon behind me pretends it is a clock.
They could be heading to Emmaus or Egypt.
What they seek is what we find in them.
We are all prisoners of our own happiness.

Ljubljana, Slovenia, 1992

Someone is watching from the window across the square.
There are Nightbirds complaining as they maneuver
And dive between the lights. We could drink the darkness.
Those aren’t child’s jacks or crosses as they seemed from afar.
Below us, a Roman city smirks about what we’ll never know.
The darkness provokes a few whispers. Everywhere we look
Something crosses our path. We can’t see the lovers yet,
About to cross from the right. We can’t see the child
Crossing out what he’s just written. There are no halos
On the streetlights. These designs imprison us. The sky
leans down. If we aren’t careful we’ll cross out the world.


Nobody sees what the other person sees. As when
you pick up at a piece of driftwood and it is not driftwood,
it is the forgotten place it came from. Or when
your dreams wander along the shoreline and your words
no longer believe the things they refer to. I don’t
remember why we were there or why we found ourselves
on opposite shores. What drifted in between us were
images I saw once of bodies piled on another shore
by the child soldiers of Kony in Uganda. The heart is
criss-crossed by these lines. You want me to say
the driftwood symbolizes something. It doesn’t.
In a little while the moon will rise on its stem of light
as it always does. The sky will hoard a few stars.
The insects will try to talk to them. You have to know
the difference between the sound of a planet and
the sound of a star. The owl pretends it doesn’t care
if you hear him. What I want you to see is that this is
a love poem. It only exits if you see it that way.


They are looking at a town made from splinters of memory.
On the opposite hill, only a marker where the church stood.
Even now their gaze is vulnerable though the Nazis have left
Decades ago. A whole town that no longer had a name on a map.
It’s as if these children have returned from the camps alive.
What they are asking is that we find a way to love one another,
To find some whiff of God in the air. What they understand is
The way the pearl gives the oyster its troubling dreams.

Lidice, a town northwest of Prague, wiped from the face of the earth by the Nazis, the population killed or sent to the camps.

RICHARD JACKSON is the author of ten books of poems including Resonance (2010) (Eric Hocher Award), Half Lives: Petrarchan Poems (2004) and Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems (2003). He has also published two books of translations, Last Voyage: The Poems of Giovanni Pascoli from Italian (2010) and Alexandar Persolja’s Journey of the Sun from Slovene (2008). He is also the author of two critical books, Acts of Mind: Conversations with American Poets (Choice Award) and Dismantling Time in Contemporary Poetry (Agee Award Winner), and has edited two anthologies of Slovene poetry, as well as the journal Poetry Miscellany. His work has been translated into fifteen languages and has appeared in The Best American Poetry, among other collections. He has been awarded the Order of Freedom Medal by the President of Slovenia for literary and humanitarian work in the Balkans, and has been named a Guggenheim Fellow, Fulbright Fellow, Witter-Bynner Fellow, NEA fellow, NEH Fellow, and has lectured and given readings at dozens of universities and conferences here and abroad. In 2009 he won the AWP George Garret National Award for Teaching and Arts Advocacy.