And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
Yesterday, I reread pieces of John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. It is a book I come back to again and again. I first learned of it maybe in 1992 when a boyfriend of mine transcribed one of the poems within and included it in a letter he sent me:
My heart born naked
was swaddled in lullabies.
Later alone it wore
poems for clothes.
Like a shirt
I carried on my back
the poetry I had read.
So I lived for half a century
until wordlessly we met.
From my shirt on the back of the chair
I learn tonight
how many years
of learning by heart
I waited for you.
I found the letter again a few years ago when I was cleaning out a trunk and decided to seek out the book. It is a slim book, just 101 pages, but each page holds something revelatory. As I look through it I see that I have an underline, a circle, an exclamation point, a comment on every page. As far as what the book is “about”, it is difficult to pinpoint. A mixture of prose, poetry and prose poetry, the book covers such topics of art, our way of seeing and understanding art (as in his seminal Ways of Seeing), creating, the creative process, writing, memory, prayer, death, language:
To break the silence of events, to speak of experience however bitter or lacerating, to put into words, is to discover the hope that these words may be heard, and that when heard, the events will be judged. This hope is of course at the origin of prayer, and prayer–as well as labor–was probably at the origin of speech itself. Of all uses of language, it is poetry that preserves most purely the memory of this origin.
Finally, though it is something of a love story:
What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet is does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.
I’ve recommended this book to many friends and each one has come to say how much he learned, how deeply he was moved.