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 Marie Lecrivain reviews Optic Nerve: Poems With Photographs by Janet Sternberg


published by Red Hen Press




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How many artists confine themselves to a specific genre and deny the truth: Art knows NO bounds. Collaboration between the hemispheres of the brain, or more specifically between the mind and the eye will produce work that transcends those carefully crafted niches many artists carve out for themselves. Success in more than one artistic medium is a talent all in itself; one that has been accomplished with an economy of grace and fortitude in Janet Sternberg's collection Optic Nerve: poems with photographs.


I particularly enjoyed this book because it validated a truth I long suspected; a background in visual arts can be the foundation, and later, the inspiration for a foray into the literary arts. My own experience as a freelance photographer helped me to develop a visual language for poetry, and imbued me with the discipline I previously lacked. Sternberg, a successful photographer whose work has been exhibited throughout the United States and Latin America, is also the author of Phantom Limb (2003 Bison Books), a well-received memoir chronicling her experiences of her mother, who after a leg amputation still felt the effects of that loss. As Sternberg is no stranger to the written word, it's plainly evident how she has been able to fuse both her visual and literary gifts.


Most of the poems in Optic Nerve are accompanied by Sternberg's photographs, which do not act as an adjunct to the poem, but in a subtle way complement and finish each piece. In the poem "The Traces," a simple vignette that explores the ways human beings indelibly leave their mark wherever they go, the photo "The Behavior of Light (San Miguel de Allende 2003)," a multi-layered image in ivory, aqua, and lavender tones wonderfully supports and rounds out the already powerful imagery that Sternberg conveys in her poetry:


Think of the city, the windows

in tall buildings


and of the trees, the scratches

in their bark


and of the cave, think

of the walls, the traces


of incisions: and ourselves


flat up against it

all: and of the stone


passing over

our bodies


these details, us

the impression.


Great poetry, like photography, requires one - as Henri Cartier Bresson (father of photojournalism) put it - to be a "master of the decisive moment." To be a master, one must be able to illustrate a story with a single image, as well as capture the essence of the moment. Sternberg follows this formula each and every time with her photopoems "Natura Morta," "Vitalae," "Girls' Latin" (my favorite) and most notably with her the eight part epic "A Life in Earrings," which is partnered with two gripping images: "Self Portrait" (Minneapolis 1998), and "Amphora" (San Miguel de Allende 1999). 


I am going to end this review by sharing a bit of "A Life in Earrings," so as to a) arouse your curiosity and to seek out Optic Nerve, b) reinforce the maxim that an artist who can fuse both the written and the visual aspects of her vision will not soon be forgotten and may well be one step up on the evolutionary scale of art:



At this, my first serious job,

the receptionist in her spare time

made earrings,

strong and glinting

as though found in the dirt

of an ancient past.

I worried: too bold?

Older, I unearthed them,

thrilled now to revel

in their barbaric heft.







- review by Marie Lecrivain, executive editor of poeticdiversity







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