In a personal and at times very moving blog, writer/actor/director/singer-songwriter Gerda Stevenson reflects on some of the photographs in our When We Were Young exhibition, pairing them with her own poetry. Links for those affected by some of the issues raised can be found at the bottom of the page.
One of the first images to arrest us when we enter this beautifully curated exhibition is Diane Arbus’s extreme close-up of A Very Young Baby. The subject’s eyes are closed, and the impression is one of complete stillness. The photographer captures that moment which can often ambush a parent: ‘Is my baby still breathing?’ There’s a hint of the death mask in this portrait, as the commentary beneath it points out. I watched my first baby slowly slip into her death mask, ten days after she was born.
Co-Op Funeral Parlour
My heart stops
at the waxed apple cheeks, plump
and impossibly polished;
your head in my palm yesterday,
skull barely masked by paper skin,
you were undeniably mine.
An imposter lies in this small white box
we ordered - a collector's doll,
lace-framed face mounted
on a slice of shop-window silk.
I would strip the pinned folds, find
the miracle of your miniature hands,
blood cooled to blue beneath each nail,
but a tail of brown thread,
carelessly trimmed, curls
below the jaw's angle, like a worm
emerging from puckered skin.
I draw back, let panic drain,
search for signs of you,
and detect at last
the down-turn of your top lip -
my mouth's copy -
under a lipstick blur.
Further on, we find Edith Tudor-Hart’s unsettling images of young children with learning difficulties in a Camphill school near Aberdeen (1949), one child wriggling uncomfortably in a high-chair – unsettling because I’m reminded of what used to be a general assumption: that such children shouldn’t be brought up within their families, and so would be handed over to institutions at an early age. My thoughts return to sleeping babies, and my second daughter - her first few weeks, when I was getting to know her:
3am, and a globe of the world
illuminates your sleep.
Pentland rain beats on the slates
above the sphere of your head.
I saw you first on a screen –
sound brought you to light,
the curve of your brow
a distant moon; I knew
there was a chance
of that one chromosome.
I spin the globe
on its plastic axis,
oceans and continents
flicker over your face;
from the delicate slant of your eyelids
I’d guess Siberia or Tibet
If I didn’t know.
Like that butterfly in China
your breath taps the air,
and shells strung for your delight
shift slightly on their threads.
You fill a space too small
to pin-point on the map,
but your territories are vast,
unfolding before me
a unique identity.
Throughout this exhibition we’re confronted by children - young beings with vast interiors - navigating worlds constructed by adults. Yet I can’t help wondering how many of them ever achieved their potential.
Another Tudor-Hart image (1935) of a child staring into a bakery window is a heart-breaker – clothes full of holes, a mop of matted black hair framing her grubby face. Her eyes are two deep wells of resignation, her lips pursed in the certainty that she’ll never taste the mouth-watering confections piled up behind the glass she’s looking through.
But there’s defiance and joy here too – the boy leapfrogging a gravestone in a bleak London graveyard during the second world war; children fishing for minnows in a woodland river;
and I’m thinking of my second daughter again:
Eyes bright with the search,
you clutch your small basket
under gusting silver birch,
summer’s last flush on your cheeks;
and suddenly our luck’s in –
a blaze of tiny can-can skirts
kick their hems at our feet.
Your pink fingernails plunge
their pocket-money glamour
into wet moss, your laughter
gold as the fluted flesh
you pluck from the earth.
The poems above appear in Gerda’s poetry collection IF THIS WERE REAL/SE QUESTO FOSSE VERO (Smokestack Books, 2013/Edizioni Ensemble, 2017), © Gerda Stevenson .