Friday, September 22, 2017



The Absent by Rosalind Palermo Stevenson
(Rain Mountain Press, 2016)

Written in prose and poetry, this novel by Rosalind Palermo Stevenson explores the life of a photographer living in the mid 19th century, during the time of the civil war.  Written in a dream-like narrative which also captures the broad-ranging style of Walt Whitman,  Palermo Stevenson explores the inner life, losses and career of someone like Timothy H. Sullivan, a photographer who was a contemporary of Mathew Brady, the great civil war photographer who documented the battlefields of the civil war.  But unlike Brady, Sullivan went on expeditions which documented and explored the lives of Native Americans, and it is the interior narrative of these expeditions of the main character of this novel, William Martin, as well as the intimate loss of a wife and re-marriage, which gives structure to The Absent. 

While the narrative is not stream-of-consciousness, Palermo Stevenson gives the photographer-narrator, Mr. William Martin, an interior voice which is exquisite and reveals the acute aesthetic eye of a photographer, especially sensitivity to light, shadow and darkness,as he relates the death of his wife Lucie during a pregnancy, and his extended mourning of her throughout the book.  The novel is set in Philadelphia, 1859,1860, Arkansas, 1860, St. Louis, 1861, Santa Fe, NM 1873,1874, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1898, and bears interior witness and witness of life passages of William Martin as he continues to mourn the loss of his wife, who was also a photographer focusing on portraits.  He remarries a woman named Angeline, but the post-life presence of his wife who is far from absent during each of his many expeditions is a primary theme.  The presence of those who have passed is interwoven throughout the exquisite lyrical and imagistic prose which often breaks into poetry throughout each of the seven chapters of The Absent. Martin has an aunt who is fascinated by the occult and spiritualism and The Absent can be said to be an extended meditation, almost a novel-length prose poem, on the presence of those who have passed in our lives.  There is a seance in one scene, and there are explorations of the beliefs in the spirits of animals and those who have departed - the spiritual practices of the Native Americans who Martin photographs - in one of his expeditions.

His wife Lucie has died, but a married couple, friends of Martin, have a baby girl who they name Lucie, after his wife who has passed.  A very profound exploration of Martin’s relationship to this girl who becomes his assistant, but then becomes blind in an accident due to chemicals splashed in her eyes by wet-plate photography current at the early birth of photographic techniques, renders her a symbol also of the absence of sight in the household of a photographer for whom sight is all important.  This absence, and Martin’s sensual attraction to the young woman who bears his lost wife’s name, is also explored in depth.

In a larger context, Palermo Stevenson utilizes the photography and experiences that Martin has with Native Americans in Santa Fe and the Southwest to make a strong condemnation of the virtual murder of the culture of Native Americans, and that is also an absence which Martin dwells on in his descriptions of the Native Americans, called Indians in keeping with the times in which the novel is set, and there are many scenes that describe without romanticism the circumstances of Native Americans at the time of the Civil War.

It is noteworthy that the author does not explore any expeditions in which the photographer, William Martin, would be photographing civil war scenes on battlefields, though that is how so many photographers of those times gained their reputations.  Instead he makes a journey, early in the novel, to St. Louis and photographs a hermaphrodite, to whom he is somewhat attracted, and that relationship is also explored through this interior narrative which is dream-like, and documents dreams as well, and almost serves as a photographer’s diary.  The absence of a normally functioning sexual body is another aspect of the theme of presence and absence, which reveals that Palermo Stevenson has an almost masterly grasp of how to explore this theme on multiple levels.

As a novel which is also an extended meditative prose poem on the nature of life and death, vision and the loss of vision, perception and illusion both visual and spiritual, the presence of those who have passed on as active in our lives, and as a historical document which takes a hard look at the genocide of Native Americans in very intimate and visual scenes at the time of the Civil War, and the references and witness to the slave trade are also often included in Martin’s interior narrative, one would emphasize that this is a masterly novel which aims very high and succeeds on multiple levels. I have only described a small portion of the richness of The Absent. It is a deep and enlightening experience to read and absorb the many layers and currents of The Absent by Rosalind Palermo Stevenson.


Judy Katz-Levine is an internationally published poet whose two full-length collections include "Ocarina", and "When The Arms Of Our Dreams Embrace".  Her most recent chapbook is "When Performers Swim, The Dice Are Cast".  A new collection, "The Everything Saint", will be published by WordTech LLC in August of 2018.  Poems have appeared recently in "Unlikely Stories Mark V", "Kritya" (India), "Salamander", "Blue Unicorn", "Ibbetson Street", "Ygdrasil", "Muddy River Poetry Review","Stanzaic Stylings" and many other journals.

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