A fan of Judith Kitchen’s Short Takes, In Short, and In Brief anthologies of flash nonfiction, I could not wait to get a hold of Half in Shade, which—it turns out—is not your standard memwah. Rather, it is a collection of prose poems disguised as essays, the only difference between the two being how they’re typeset on the page. Kitchen characterizes it as “a series of lyric pieces written variously to, from, or around old photographs found in family albums and scrapbooks.” Whatever you call them, each of the lyric tidbits develops before the reader as if with toners and fixers and gelatin-silver in a darkroom, the process yielding startling and wondrous results.
Like an album or scrapbook, the collection behaves as montage, sketching the anatomy of the author’s ancestry, her immediate family, and her grips with and recovery from breast cancer. “To underscore our fragile ties,” she wraps each of Half in Shade’s three sections with a meditation on illness. In fact, the entire collection is a series of meditations, thoughtful and thought-provoking vignettes—the shortest, a paragraph; the longest, 30 pages. “But each, in one way or another, delves into the mystery of another life, another time,” says Kitchen. “Since each photo was locked in its own era, I wanted language to bring it alive in new ways—to give it contemporary significance. Thus my challenge as a writer was not to describe, but to interact. Not to confirm, but to activate and resurrect.”
“This is what a scientist should look like.” So begins the piece titled “With Cloud Chamber,” in which the author affectionately resurrects her father, who would later work as a physicist with Corning Glass Works, Westinghouse Corp.:
The gooseneck lamp that twists in the direction of the glass rods that are somehow connected to the drum in which my serious young father is peering casts long shadows in stripes over the ceiling and down the far wall. . . . . . . He invents himself from shadow.
The author speaks often of shadows and shade, ghosts and out-of-frame subjects, what’s not in the photo and who’s not in the photo. In the Introduction, she says she became “fascinated with the ghost in every photograph—the unseen presence behind the lens whose eye shapes what, and how, we will see.”
In “What/Not,” we examine the black and white image of a snowman surrounded by women and children:
Not what it is, but what to make of it. Snowman wearing my grandfather’s cap. It could be my Great-Aunt Gretta, his sister. There she is, wearing her stylish tucked-waist coat, building a snowman out of nothing, a featherweight of snow. So little snow that he’s a ghost of a snowman, half leaf, half luster.
Later in the same essay, we focus on yet another photo. This time: “‘Not aunt Gretta.’ That’s all it says on the back, so what are we to do with this? Someone knows only the negative. That’s where this begins. Not only who she’s not, but also, obviously, what she’s not doing.”
As the book’s title indicates, we cannot know the full story of these photos. Like their subjects, we are—at least—half in shade. Thus, parts of Half in Shade are pure speculation, as in “Where They Came From, Where They Went,” in which the author imagines the story of a young couple, circa mid-1800s, their photo mistakenly included on Kitchen’s CD of scanned family photos. In the title essay, she speculates about the identities of two people, one whose face is eclipsed by a lit lamp, while the other is hidden under the same lamp’s shade. It’s a funny picture that yields poignant reflections on family resemblances, generational connections, and the tumult of memory.
Kitchen has won multiple awards, including two Pushcarts, one for “Certainty,” which anchors the book’s middle section and was originally published in Great River Review. Referencing documents such as her grandfather’s letters, her father’s fragmentary memoir, her mother’s journal, scribbles on postcards and envelopes, and handwritten notations on the photos themselves, she spent ten years constructing this memoir. Yet she says it took serious illness to arouse in her the notion that, “like the people in the snapshots, none of us knows what lies beyond the moment, outside the frame.” Thank you, Judith Kitchen, for seizing the day.