May 2007

Olivia Cronk


The Pictures by Max Winter

“The Poet gives an outlet to indescribable acts of the imagination that would be unacceptably odd in other forms of discourse.”

            -Max Winter in an interview at

The Pictures is a worthwhile book of poetry because it knows how to please; its breathy moments of profundity are tempered by an evenly handled attention to the landscape of the imagination. Max Winter, also a poetry editor at the endlessly hip Fence, is generous in his willingness to make toy-like the reader’s experience while uncompromising in his specificity. I mean to say: you can read this book in lazy stretches while sitting with your in-laws chatting about the weather and what the dog is doing. You can also take this book to bed. Or smartly consider it in a library window nook. It is not a particularly devastating book (in terms of content or form), but it is satisfying and unassuming.

The title creates the clean structure of the book: two sets of “pictures,” each a poem in either the Still set or the Moving set, labeled according to size and duration, respectively. The moving pictures also receive a few thematic designations (like, for example, “The Ant” and “Care”). Finally, the arrangement of poems is based on this ordering. Still pictures list from small to large; moving pictures list from short to long. And if one was to browse and choose a page to land upon by looking at titles, it would be necessary to choose (almost blindly -- a pun -- and rather whimsically) something like “7 by 10” or “19 by 19” or “6 minutes.” You see why this might be fun.

Winter’s project here is to translate to language what an eye experiences (and, of course, how the eye’s intake is always bleeding into the mind’s processing of an image -- still or moving, static or dynamic, heartbreaking or bizarre). And this, I must tell you, is inherently fun to read. In the same way that I believe most humans adore anything especially miniature or especially gigantic, and in the same way many humans like looking at things (visually or mentally), and in the same way that humans can move from image to thought to imagination with the ease of a breath, Winter demonstrates that humans (at least those who would bother to read a book of poetry) like things stacked in categories as well as the experience of “seeing” something without the use of one’s own eyes.

Part of the charm of the sterile, straight labels for poems and sections is that Winter can play inside of the constraint. Once the reader comprehends the “rules” of the book, it is easy to daydream one’s way through the language. And, certainly, different readers will have different experiences. In some ways, the poems have the feel of digging through those forgotten, forsaken, abandoned photos you find at a resale or antique shop. You know -- the weirdness of seeing someone’s personal life in images. At other moments, the experience is akin to describing a particularly strange event to someone not present: you rely on your command of words to conjure something that is outside of language. Check out this “5 by 4”:
A perfectly centered portrait,
            it stands out.
            Short cropped blond hair,
            could have been cut off an interstate.
            Blue eyes. Fair skin.
            Looks smooth, fairly unblemished.
            A grim face, but then you notice
            it’s simply the way the mouth is constructed.
            The lower lip that protrudes slightly.
            The upper lip designed by a committee,
            divided twice by two faint scars,
            trickling into the lip’s flesh,
            more like furrows when you are
too close...

When I said that the poems in this book were not particularly devastating, I didn’t mean to suggest that they don’t have some real, old-fashioned sadness. But that’s sort of the nature of games like “people-watching” and “what is that person’s greatest fear” and “why would that lady wear a wig like that in the summertime.” And that imaginative play with what we see in the world is the thing that Winter taps into. And any time a poet fiddles with the funny experience of peopling a page with words, light fun and gut-turning examination of existence will inevitably turn up.

The Pictures by Max Winter
Tarpaulin Sky Press
ISBN: 0977901920
64 pages