Exercise - Poem

I read a book review of 'When Breath Becomes Air', the memoirs of neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi in which he describes his diagnosis with lung cancer and the struggles and questions about life and death accompanying his final years. I haven't read the book yet, but was struck by the beauty of the title. I looked up the poem where it was derived from and would like to use this for the exercise.

Caelica 83: You that seek what life is in death

You that seek what life is in death,

Now find it air that once was breath.

New names unknown, old names gone:

Till time end bodies, but souls none.

            Reader! then make time, while you be,

            But steps to your eternity.

Baron Brooke Fulke Greville (1628)


This poem promotes feelings of sadness and nostalgia and the idea that you cannot really grasp life because it is on its way of changing into death already. It's quite a heavy poem but also a call to value life in the here and now and beyond death. 

I have been thinking quite a bit about death and the meaning of life after a good friend passed away and have felt the vulnerability of my own life and the sadness of loosing somebody. In this process I feel that I'm starting to  become more aware about the meaning of life and find value in elements of daily living that normally would go unnoticed. 

When visualising this poem I think of things that are in decay, but still show beauty, like dead leaves or flowers. The last sentences, Reader! then make time, while you be, But steps to your eternity, stirs an other type of image, something that shows a transition point, which could be a crossroad, or a melting ice, or the changing of a texture. Besides that the poem reflects the transitions that every living thing goes through, it does point out that in the process you have to take time to be and enjoy life and see the beauty of it. An other motive in the poem is that of uncertainty, not being able to grasp either breath or air, not knowing about the people who were before us and who are going to be. 

Besides the images that I mentioned above, I have also been thinking about a more materialistic approach, like a spray can with gas coming out of it, or boiling water and focusing in on the steam. To show the transition I also think of a tunnel or a door that's leading to a light, or maybe an other colour than the one in the foreground. 

However, I do find that the idea of showing nature at the point of transition and decay reflects most what I feel when reading it. I want the colours to be a bit dark and mysterious and show the earth tones. I went for a walk in a small forest close to a hotel I was staying last weekend and photographed the leaves and twigs that showed some of the decay. I have kept the lens as open as possible in order to keep the background blurry and just showing the details in the front. The idea of this is that the poem describes the uncertainty of what is beyond and before life and with the blurriness I think this is reflected. I also darkened the frames of the images to bring the eye even more on the sharper parts of the image and accentuate the darkness that surrounds life. 

The final image stands out. This is a big rock hitting the surface of a little lake and the reflection on the water. This image symbolises life and death in the sense that our existence is visible and going to a certain point, death, from which all what we can see of the life is a reflection of what the life before death had been. What is beyond the point of dying is invisible and dark, but there are some clues on the surface of the water. I rotated the image because I wanted the eyes to go horizontally through the image and because I want to focus more on the idea itself, I took out the first obvious impression of the image, being a rock hitting a lake.


Regarding the question if I could leave image out, I think all of them on their own are a reflection of the poem. However, I think the final one conveys the message best. So I would just leave it to that one.

With the question if I have given the viewer enough information, I think that with the combination of the poem there are enough visual and linguistic clues to get to the geste of the idea. It takes some looking to see what the final image is, but that is also in line with the poem itself. Taking the time to think about life and death and looking for meaning in the process.

1628, 1554 –, Greville, B.B.F., Pinsky, R. and Allen, A. (1912) Caelica 83: You that seek what life is in death by baron Brooke Fulke Greville: The poetry foundation. Available at: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/246232#poem (Accessed: 5 February 2016).

Kalanithi, P. (2016) When breath becomes air. Available at: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25614898-when-breath-becomes-air (Accessed: 5 February 2016).