Book Review: Readings

Two from UT Press


Between Heaven and Texas

photographs by Wyman Meinzer; poems selected by Naomi Shihab Nye

University of Texas Press, 132 pp., $34.95

La Vida Brinca: A Book of Tragaluz Photographs

by Bill Wittliff

University of Texas Press, 192 pp., $50

It's a cliché, a truism, and a predicament familiar to most Texans: Sooner or later, nowhere else you go has a big enough, or weird enough, sky. This is not necessarily a boast: The tendency to bristle a bit against the floridly human canyons of Manhattan or go claustrophobic after a too-long stay in the Smoky Mountains – to seize up in places that are more exciting, more cultivated, whose beauty and allure are generally more prized (sometimes by you, sometimes just by everyone else) – can feel like a curse. Giving oneself over to the "big empty" – a condition somewhere between high lonesome and meditative embrace – is not the exclusive domain of poets and photographers, but they tend to capture it well. Between Heaven and Texas, a collection of photographs by onetime Texas State photographer Wyman Meinzer and poems selected by the equally lauded San Antonio poet Naomi Shihab Nye, should rightfully take its place in the small, solid canon of ambivalent odes to what Meinzer calls "this ragged and ridiculed land."

Novelist Sarah Bird's introduction, an account of her eventual childhood embrace of Texas' vast, troubling skies, calibrates our focus; skyward dreaming is the natural domain of children, and who doesn't feel tiny under a giant dome of clouds or stars? Meinzer's photographs are striking in both their drama and the familiar banality that rubs up against it. A saturated shot of a generic highway, dotted with a blurry HEB sign and radio tower and swallowed by a nuclear sunset, blends into almost abstract studies of unambiguous beauty: stacked layers of orange clouds, a line of birds silhouetted against an early moon in the green-gray dusk, roiling black thunderheads, sheets of rain mowing into what's left of the prairie sunlight. It's the Texas sky as we experience it: sometimes bleached and bleak, sometimes brilliant, and sometimes terrifying – but never absent of feeling.

The poems echo this complexity and hint at difference. Marian Haddad's "El Paso" evokes atmospheric menace ("We are drowning in the light"), while Barbara Ras' "Texas Sky" notes that "Nights here produce a bleaker dark"; other poets read the vast neutrality as both "unforgiving" and "blameless." There are simple appreciations here, too, and contemplative philosophy, and poems that aren't really about the Texas sky at all. An index of where the photographs were taken, along with more information on the individual poets, would have been super; then again, poems and photographs can pile up like that: The result is an elegant scrapbook of sorts, meandering through a state in its many iterations.

Bill Wittliff's La Vida Brinca: A Book of Tragaluz Photographs is both less direct and, at first glance, less grand. The Texas native and screenwriter (Lonesome Dove, The Perfect Storm) surely knows a thing or two about vastness; maybe that's why he goes small here, starting with his choice of equipment. As Elizabeth Ferrer explains in her introduction, Wittliff created the shots with handmade pinhole cameras: "a lightproof box outfitted with film on one side and a tiny hole in place of a lens on the other. … [I]ts size dictates that exposures are much longer than those of regular cameras." Wittliff calls the resulting images tragaluces, "light-swallowers." The long exposures reveal an infinity of smallness: miniscule movements, changes of light, and unexpected intrusions combine to depict a world of unsettling and the unsettled, capturing constant movement and strange shifts. Most of the photographs were taken in Mexico and Texas, and the dusty rural and small-town settings and subjects, along with the sepia tone of the prints, dislocate them from a particular time. Ambiguous titles lend mystery, an effect enhanced by ghost traces and blurs caused by movement and fickle light. What could have been pedestrian portraits (Grandfather/Abuelito) conjure instead some kind of ontology; landscapes go primordial (Plowman/Arador); others, capturing some inscrutable memory, are flat-out stunning: The Veronica/La Veronica, with its blur of cape and light; Bailar/To Dance, two figures in motion; and especially Life Jumps/La Vida Brinca, a shaky portrait of a bizarre parade, people trailing floating human figures in the sky. Here is an entirely different kind landscape – one that is internal, ethereal, and wholly shared – of life under the surface, changing like the weather.

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Between Heaven and Texas, Wyman Meinzer, Naomi Shihab Nye, University of Texas Press, La Vida Brinca:A Book of Tragaluz Photographs, Bill Wittliff

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