‘Exposure’ Derek Adams
Dempsey & Windle dempseyandwindle.co.uk
ISBN 9781907435942, 54pp
Derek Adams draws on his own experience as a professional photographer to create a series of snapshots into the life of Lee Miller. Lee Miller learn photography from her then lover Man Ray and become ‘Vogue’ magazine’s war correspondent during the Second World War before retiring in her early forties with her husband and young son. After her death in 1977, her photographic archives were rediscovered. Whilst ‘Exposure’ is not a biography in poems, it does cover the key points of Lee Miller’s life including her experience of sex abuse at the hands of a sailor when on a trip to New York when she was aged seven, in ‘Afterwards (New York, 1914)’,
‘Home in Poughkeepsie
the doctor shakes his head,
delivers his hush-toned diagnosis.
Afterwards, Mama cries and hugs you,
tells you she loves you,
tells you that no one must know.’
In ‘Meeting Man Ray (Paris, 1929)’, after ‘I chase him all over Paris’,
‘I make him drive me in his car;
for two weeks, I don’t leave his side.
‘I am Lee; I will be your lover.’
Back in Paris, Kiki throws plates, spits words
I don’t know, in an accent I can’t understand,
as she chases after him all over Montparnasse.
So it is settled, artist and muse –
master and student, in art and in love.
‘My name is Lee and I am your mistress.’
Man Ray espouses free love, but he buys a pistol,
waves it at Julian, Aziz, anyone I sleep with.
Man Ray chases after me all over Paris.’
It encapsulates all the makings of an explosive relationship: a determined young woman, a jealous, driven man and a language barrier. When it works, it does so brilliantly. In ‘Solarisation (Parish 1930)’, an accident,
‘A thrown switch
and colloidal silver,
struck by light, blackens,
reversing the negative’s
‘Man Ray seizes the idea,
poses Lee against
a plain background;
exposes her profile
in the darkroom tray.
The result, a Mackie line
borders her pensive
features and Marcelled hair,
It’s a haunting portrait of someone carrying a destructive secret of trauma from childhood sexual abuse. The poem’s stark, short lines build not just a description of the photograph, but also its subject. There’s another haunting image in ‘Lee at War (Germany, 1945)’, after drawing a picture of Lee Miller in her customised helmet and obligatory battered typewriter, the poem turns to a photograph,
‘I can see her now in
Dave Scherman’s photo,
naked in Hitler’s bath tub,
her great army boots on the floor,
dirt from Dachau
stamped into the rug.’
The image of Lee Miller is the bathtub is shocking but Derek Adams draws the reader’s attention down to the army boots and dirt, signifying that this is more important. She also photographed the concentration camps and recorded the horrors of the war so her nakedness is a reflection of what she was exposed to. Her experiences from earlier abuse and as war photographer left her with PTSD, captured in ‘The Long Man (Sussex, 1949)’ where the long man is a chalk figure on the slopes of a hill visible from Lee Miller’s home,
‘A giant figure overlooking my life,
it seems he has been there forever,
dominating from a distance,
hidden in the mist,
appearing and disappearing
with the seasons.’
The figure is metaphorical and literal. Lee Miller, like most women of her time, lived a life defined by and dominated by the men she was with. The figure could also represent her childhood trauma, which never left her.
In “Exposure” Derek Adams has created a series of biographical incidents which, when pieced together create a biographical account of Lee Miller. Each poem offers an insight into the subject’s life, connecting the person who was a talented artist and photographer with the woman who bore trauma and faded from public view. Steadily, each cumulates to a perceptive, poignant collection.