A Review by Sally Brown

How Darkness Enters a Body by Sarah Nichols

For art enthusiasts, the name ‘Diane Arbus’ instantly evokes an image – stark, minimal, haunting, and focused on an individual – a unique individual. As the quote by Arbus at the start of Sarah Nichols’s collection of poems inspired by Arbus images, How Darkness Enters a Body (2018, Porkbelly Press) keenly reads:

“Nothing was ever the same as they said it was. It’s what I haven’t seen that I recognize.”

“Five Photographs by Diane Arbus,” ArtForum, May, 1972

The quote reflects the curiosity about her work and reinforces her mantra and perspective for the strange.

Nichols’s writing echoes Arbus’s approach: intriguing depth of content, with a release by focusing on the fleeting, often peculiar moment, captured. 

The images are not included in the book—for this visual person, I had to seek them out and, at first, over-analyzed – but it’s unnecessary and not an apt interpretation; the enjoyment lies in flashes of authentic, sometimes odd, humanity. Querying deeper intent in either the poetry or the photography does not yield deeper appreciation.

Most admirable about Nichols’s minimalistic poems: each stanza can work on its own.

In “Etiquette for a Headless Woman,” after Headless Woman, NYC, 1961, Nichols writes: “…Now I sit on a pedestal, waiting / For an audience, your invisible / finger pressing on my spine.” In context, Nichols refers to the haunting portrait of a woman sitting atop a pedestal upright with a gown, without a head, in front of a velvet curtain—perhaps as a sideshow. Nichols’s refined description presents a strong woman whose mother’s pressure led to her disappearing head. The aforementioned lines reflecting the mom’s continued tenacious presence, even as the star of a show. As Nichols relates, this feeling of the mom’s pressure—is too relatable, even in reference to a figure we may not typically connect to.

“Something Was There and No Longer Is,” after Inadvertent Double Exposure of a Self Portrait and Images of Times Square, NYC, 1957, is as immaculate as the image. “I haunt this place now,” it begins… “I pass between worlds.” Again – so simple, yet every line can read alone. The poem exudes the artist’s confidence, courage, and unapologetic blunt perspective. Closing with a stun, Nichols’ articulates Arbus’s often-eccentric subjects, “I don’t dare to shut my eyes.”

The title poem, written after Kiss from “Baby Doll,” NYC, 1956, is almost a mini-manifesto from the moment the camera clicked. The photograph depicts a movie still, mostly black with only whites showing a man and woman’s noses, nearly touching, a pose implying embrace and romance. However, the text exudes the darkness of the photo, relaying the mystery of the media’s results—“…every contact sheet a specimen case, / every camera a killing jar…” It is tempting to search between the lines. As with the imagery, overthinking detracts from the intent. Appreciating the poignant, few words of Nichols, as the striking black and white images of Arbus, is enough to realize the value of both.

There are seven poems in this tight collection, each with their own exquisite, modest little moments around Arbus’s curious work—all images of which can be found in Diane Arbus Revelations (New York: Random House, 2003).

The cover art – a black circle covering what appears as light emitting onto a black field – like a cap covering a camera lens, curiously shows no body. Though perhaps its significance lies in the perspective and moment of the capture. The photography, by E. L. Trouvelot, “Total eclipse of the sun. Observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory,” from the New York Public Library’s Rare Book Division – is, to boot, a very old image of an eclipse – not an abstract work at all. Much like the works in the book, so much between the lines, but maybe just appreciate the lines themselves.

How Darkness Enters a Body by Sarah Nichols
Porkbelly Press, 2018
$7.50, 15 pages

Sally Brown Deskins is a writer, artist, and curator who focuses on feminist and women artists. Her writing has been published in Hyperallergic and Artslant, among others. Her artwork has been exhibited in the US and UK. She edits Les Femmes Folles, a blog supporting women in art.

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