Half in Shade
(Coffee House Press, 2012)
“I have never owned a camera and I never snap photos …” So goes the first line of Judith Kitchen’s quasi-photo collage, Half in Shade: one part memoir, one part speculative sketch, all parts autobiographical. The line is only the first in a number of surprising juxtapositions with which Kitchen engages readers. She grounds her reinterpretations in memory, but she eventually relies on probability, supposition, intuition, the half-known, the partially-knowable, even fantasy—to breathe new life into those strangers we call family, those persons “half in shade,” unremembered through generational divides and time’s physical decay of that encapsulated moment inscribed in flimsy plastic.
Kitchen wrote Half in Shade over a 10-year period, and in her introduction, she recognizes the serious illness she suffered while writing for providing her with the perspective to complete it. Behind the beautiful language Kitchen employs and the poignant moments she unearths, it’s the theme of life’s instability that resonates most. Each of the book’s three sections closes with a meditation on illness, Kitchen’s way of emphasizing the preciousness of life colliding with the precariousness of life’s circumstances, the frames that are out of sight, beyond our reach. “My challenge as a writer was not to describe, but to interact,” she writes. “Not to confirm, but to activate and resurrect.” And she animates her strangers by familiarizing them, describing each scene with journalistic precision and poetic inventiveness.
Kitchen moves from the perspective of subject, to the one snapping the photograph, to a time-traveler—her own role as author, existing “in a kind of time warp”—speculating freely, unafraid to contemplate the possibilities of the scenes captured in black-and-white that are hardly as clear. She takes static moments and adds retrospective texture to them, making the antique image three-dimensional and relevant, no longer artifact but anthropomorphized. The photograph becomes another subject in a long line of them. Sometimes, she shades the speculation in matter-of-fact prose, as in “Paris: 1938,” describing her Aunt Margaret: “When this sketch was finished, she’d wander past the bookstalls, the peculiar smell of French books, like vinegar, and the sound of the language filling her with its liqueurs.” Other times, she emphasizes the speculation, even reveling in it, as in “Classroom with Landscape”:
Which one of the others is Martha, the friend who will become the opera singer? She could be any of them, I think, with their long blonde braids, their big-boned capacities. So let her be sitting next to my Aunt Margaret wearing a checker jumper and a half-smile. Maybe it’s the end of the year … Let it be April…
Read in conjunction with the photograph on the opposite side of the page, simple gestures and slight facial expressions take on renewed significance. Often, Kitchen juxtaposes two photographs from different periods on the same page; engaging in much more than just time-travel, she goes one step further: bridging generations.
But Kitchen’s time-traveling narrative sometimes has the effect of making the reader feel discombobulated. Myriad suppositions collide, cancel each other out, and without proper grounding, the subjective threads holding together Kitchen’s re-interpretations unspool. There are times, even, when she acknowledges this: “I say maybe, then add maybe to maybe, because his, too, is now a face from the past and these are at best conjectures, attempts at correlation.” It is perhaps these moments that her attempt—and her achievement—with the project is the most heartfelt, the moments when she resigns herself to the unknowable, as in “Where They Came From, Where They Went,” which begins by re-animating the lives of her “theoretical” great-grandparents from a snapshot of their passage to America. “Look, her right hand holds a blossom in her lap and her left hand covers something—a box? Who knows?”
Early on in Half in Shade, lest she deceive any readers or upend expectations, Kitchen makes her endeavor clear: “This is not art. This is life.” And yet, what is art but the finely-ground seeds of life? What is art but life’s speculation and imagination and, of course, its loss? Recorded, remembered, and eventually forgotten. Kitchen makes sure that trajectory—at least for these moments and these people, “borrowed, briefly, and imbued with basic facts”—is not completely realized. “So look again,” she urges readers. “Put a hat on Wilhelm, or Friedrich, take him out of his garden and place him on deck. Cover his hair and you suddenly see that unknown immigrant.” Suddenly, the reader is thrust inside the time machine, too. Using her imagination—and ours—Kitchen creates a testament to the veracity of art: sometimes the fiction is more real than the facts. More importantly, sometimes all the spectator needs to connect the dots is that uncanny sense of familiarity.