Sarah Dickenson Snyder invites you to see what’s there
A little camera history is in order. In 1947, American scientist Edwin Land introduced instant film, which compressed the development time for photographs to almost nothing. A year later, he introduced the camera for that film, the Model 95 Land Camera. The camera self-developed its own film and was manufactured by the Polaroid Corporation. I can’t count the number of times my parents would use their Polaroid camera; they’d snap the picture, the camera would eject the photograph, and you could watch it develop itself as the image appeared in less than a minute.
The Polaroid camera was enormously popular into the 1980s. But the decline of the consumer photography market and the rise of new technologies spelled the end of the traditional Polaroid camera. Polaroid itself declared bankruptcy in 2001, reorganized for a few years, and declared a final bankruptcy in 2008. Its name and assets were sold, and both are used today for a line of digital cameras.
But if you’re old enough to remember the marvel of instant photography, then you remember those photographs, ejected from your camera after you took the picture. You watched them as the full color appeared (the emulsions within the instant photo were layered and sensitive to different lights). The backs of the photographs were a black film.
It is this idea of instant photography that Snyder uses as both a metaphor and a centering device in her poems. The poems are structured in sections like the functions of an instant camera: load, expose, develop and eject, blue light, green light, and red light. They are like instant photographs, focused on a singular image or idea. But they are deceptively simple; you read these generally short poems and you think you understand what they’re about, until you go back and discover their depth. Here’s the title poem.
With a Polaroid Camera
One click let light in—
a brief exposure
of a child’s face.
A blank white
rectangle slid out,
chemicals reacting below
the glossy surface. Darkness
emerged first, muted and vague,
defining the borders,
nose, eyes, mouth.
All of the images
against a mud wall,
between the pages
of a grandmother’s Bible,
or warming a pocket—
four hundred bordered
faces there. Somewhere.
The poems consider life in and travel to foreign countries — Cambodia, Japan, Rwanda, Tibet, Vietnam, Costa Rica (you can hear the snap! of the visitor’s camera); everyday objects like the princess telephone (snap!); and a snowstorm and a sunset (snap! snap!). Snyder writes with an economical spareness; each word matters, and no word is gratuitous. She’s paring down her subjects to what you see in that instant photograph. But like all photographs, if you look hard and long enough, you will see far more than the immediate subject.
Snyder was an English teacher for 37 years. She now works as a tutor for reading comprehension, writing skills, college essays, vocabulary development, and test-taking strategies. Her poetry has been published in a considerable number of literary journals and periodicals. She’s previously published a poetry chapbook, Notes from a Nomad, and a poetry collection, The Human Contract. She received an A.B. degree from Bowdoin College and an M.A. from Harvard University.
With a Polaroid Camera captures a series of subjects, ideas, and images; hones them to their most basic elements; and invites you to see what is there, what might be there, and what should be there.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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