Behind the Lens – Karen Zelas’s In Camera

The following is an excerpt of the speech I gave when launching Karen Zelas’s collection I am Minerva last year. Karen is a close friend, one of my students, and a member of one of the critique groups I belong to. But she’s also a damn fine poet, and this poem is a gem. So read on with a dietarily appropriate amount of salt.

In camera

before selfies a struggle
to find the two of us

in the same frame

always the invisible other
completing the picture

– Karen Zelas

This is the opening poem in Karen Zelas’s recent collection, I am Minerva (Mākaro Press, 2016). Simple. Five lines. Just a poem about the practical difficulties of taking a photo in the days before forward-facing cameras on mobile phones. Except … “the two of us / in the same frame” isn’t just taking about the boundaries of a photograph. Frame of reference? Frame of mind? Either. Both. So we’re talking about a relationship too.

How about “always the invisible other”? Yes, it’s the person taking the photo. But there’s more. If two people aren’t often in the same frame of mind, one of the couple may well function as “the invisible other”. Same thing if we take frame as “frame of reference”. So all of a sudden this poem has a whole lot more going on – not just a photo, but the whole complexity and variance of a relationship. But this isn’t about an unhealthy relationship – the last line tells us that. The “invisible other” completes the picture (remember Jerry Maguire?). Even when I’m not consciously aware of you, you are a part of me. Completing me. And I you.

Five lines. A poem about how much easier technology has made things. Yes, but not just that. A poem about two people, and a relationship that endures to the point where they are as much a part of “us” as they are the separate individuals who make up the us.

Five lines. Twenty-three words.

And I’m including the title in that word count – you should always pay attention to titles. Because the poem isn’t done yet – the phrase “In camera” is a legal term that means ‘in private’, (literally ‘in chambers’). It describes aspects of court cases or legal proceedings where the public and press are not allowed to observe. So even as the poem shows us this relationship, it’s letting us know that something very important is not being made visible. That there are things that must stay behind closed doors. That should stay there.

Five lines. Twenty-three words. Now that is what I call magic.