Recently, reading “Photography,” Susan Sontag’s well-known essay first published in The New York Review of Books in 1973, I found myself not just transported by the power of a photograph but also translated, in effect, by the power of poetry. The catalyst for all of this was Sontag’s paragraph describing an image snapped during the Vietnam War by Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut: “A still photograph is a ‘privileged moment,’ turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again. Photographs like the one taken in 1971 and put on the front page of most newspapers in the world—a naked child running down a South Vietnamese highway toward the camera, having just been hit by American napalm, her arms open, screaming with pain—were of great importance in mobilizing antiwar sentiment in this country from 1967 on.” Actually shot on June 8th of 1972, just outside the village of Trang Bang, Nick Ut’s universally reproduced photograph is a literal example of a picture being worth a thousand words (or more).
Simply as a photograph, it has that rare quality that master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson described in 1952 in the foreword to his landmark collection of photos titled The Decisive Moment: “Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is a whole story in itself.” A searingly candid record of the horrors of war—those horrors etched as permanently in the girl’s pain-contorted face as in her naked napalm-scorched body—Ut’s photo speaks proverbial volumes that need no translation for any viewer with a soul. Even the viewer’s knowledge that the nine-year-old girl in the photo, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, survived her wounds and grew up to become a United Nations goodwill ambassador working for world peace does not lessen the unutterable wrongfulness of what Ut captured in his photo. As Sontag observes, “Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one—and can help build a nascent one.” Not just transporting, this photograph proved to be transforming as well, as it became instantly imprinted in the mind’s eye, and thus in the conscience, of a world largely oblivious—and largely willfully so—to the true tax and toll that war exacts on the innocent.
Appreciating all of that resonance as I read Sontag’s essay and pictured in my own mind’s eye that truly indelible image, I also appreciated how an image like that—no, how that exact image—can continue to resonate not only over time but also across cultures and contexts, taking on additional import without losing an iota of its original impact. Specifically, that paragraph of Sontag’s essay stirred in me a memory of a remarkable poem I had read some years ago that directly invokes Nick Ut’s photograph. I thus took down from my bookshelf Gobán Cré Is Cloch / Sentences of Earth & Stone, a dual-language volume by Irish-language poet Louis de Paor. Thumbing my way beyond the book’s midpoint, I eventually came to “Iarlais” and its facing-page translation, “Changeling.”
“Poetry,” Robert Frost reportedly declared, “is what gets lost in translation.” Its formal structure of three free verse stanzas supporting its three-part rhetorical structure, “Iarlais” surely loses little in translation by its author. First the Irish:
00000Chuir sí a dhá láimh
00000in airde go humhal
00000gur bhaineas di
00000a geansaí róchúng
00000is d’imigh de chromrúid
00000ar chamchosa ag sciorradh
00000an an urlár sleamhain
Reworked in English by de Paor, that opening stanza appears to register an ordinary moment of a day-in-the-life of the stay-at-home father he was at the time of the poem’s conception:
00000She did as she was told
00000putting her arms above her head
00000as I pulled off the tightfitting jumper,
00000then ran crookedly
00000on bow legs slipping and
00000sliding across the wet floor
00000heading for the bath.
Straightforwardly descriptive, these opening lines prove to be subversively deceptive.
Indeed, exemplifying poetry’s capacity to make both the strange familiar and the familiar strange, the poem registers in its abrupt shift of language and image the poet’s own involuntary recollection of Nick Ut’s unerasable tableau:
00000ghaibh an iarlais uimpi
00000cló muirneach m’iníne
00000is rith isteach sa tsíoraíocht
00000uaim ar bhóthar gan ceann
00000i Vietnam Thuaidh
00000le súil gan fora,
00000gan luid uirthi a cheilfeadh
00000a cabhail tanaí
00000ar mo shúil mhillteach
00000nuair a chaoch an ceamara
00000leathshúil dhall uirthi
00000In the blink
00000of an eye the changeling
00000took on my daughter’s body
00000running for all eternity
00000down a narrow unending road
00000somewhere in Vietnam
00000naked as an unlidded eye
00000without a stitch to protect
00000her wizened body
00000from my evil eye
00000when the camera winked
00000at her like this.
Superimposed on the image of his own daughter, the poet’s memory of that famous photo is itself infused with his openness to Irish folk belief in “changelings” and in the force of “the evil eye.” Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1995, preeminent Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill asserts that the very nature of the Irish language allows the native speaker equal access to the supposedly mutually exclusive realms of “reality and fantasy.” Claiming that “Even the dogs in the street in West Kerry know that the ‘otherworld’ exists, and that to be in and out of it constantly is the most natural thing in the world,” she explains: “The deep sense in the language that something exists beyond the ego-envelope is pleasant and reassuring, but it is also a great source of linguistic and imaginative playfulness, even on the most ordinary and banal of occasions.”
Of course, in “Iarlais” de Paor’s “playfulness” is altogether serious and sobering, as the folkloric elements convey a loving father’s perspective on the suffering of an innocent daughter. A rationalizing in the folk imagination of infant illness and mortality, the “changeling”—the sickly child exchanged by “the Fairies” for a healthy one—is quite literally a parent’s worst nightmare. In this case, the poet even projects his own culpability as “the evil eye” that has inflicted pain on the child now caught in the camera lens of his afflicted imagination.
But, consistent with Seamus Heaney’s description of the “verbal philandering” intrinsic to poetry written in Irish, de Paor’s working of troubling variations on the Irish word for “eye”—súil (súl, shúil, leathshúil)—in the second stanza affords the poem its restorative closure in the third stanza:
00000Nuari a nocthtann tú chugam
00000ag scréachaíl le tinneas
00000tá taise a cló buailte
00000ar do chraiceann fliuch
00000loiscthe ag an uisce fiuchta
00000ag allas scólta mo shúl.
00000When she comes back
00000screaming with pain
00000the mark of that tortured ghost
00000is branded on her dripping skin
00000scalded by the hot water
00000sweating from my unshuttered eye.
Perhaps truly, if unintentionally, complicit in sending his daughter into a bathtub of too-hot water, the poet may yet have his guilt assuaged, even absolved, by those heartfelt brimming tears—tears of empathetic fatherly love—burning his eyes at the end of the poem. Perhaps a similar capacity for love—not just for pity—contributed to what Sontag saw as the “moral outrage” provoked by Ut’s snapshot of a young girl’s agony. (“I almost love you,” Seamus Heaney wrote in a related vein in “Punishment,” a poem linking the photograph, published in P. V. Glob’s book The Bog People, of a female body buried for centuries in a Scandinavian bog with the thought of a young woman in Northern Ireland in the 1970s scapegoated for consorting with British soldiers.)
A compelling lyric poem by any measure, Louis de Paor’s “Iarlais” / “Changeling” may be that much more intriguing for having been written during the poet’s residency in Australia from 1987 to 1996. (A native of Cork, de Paor had a lectureship at the University of Sydney. He is currently Director of the Center for Irish Studies at the National University of Ireland, Galway.) A “translation”—literally, a “carrying across”—in more ways than one, the poem’s engagement with Nick Ut’s transcendent photograph of Kim Phuc transports the reader far beyond the familiar realms of immediate time and place.