A Chilly Peace


Several weeks ago, I wrote an article on this blog entitled “Peace… Eternal“, after having visited and photographed one of Berlin’s oldest and most charming graveyards. In it, I described the ambiguity I felt of being in that remote, utterly peaceful place while being constantly reminded of death.

I recently came across a blog entry written by one Masud Mahmood about the American poet Emily Dickinson, and what the author refers to as her ‘graveyard mentality’. I’m not overly familiar with Dickinson’s work, although I knew that death was a central theme in her poems, and so it took this article to show me how she had in her work repeatedly referenced graveyards and their uneasy peace – what Dickinson called a ‘chilly peace’. Since I was back visiting more cemeteries these past couple of week-ends, I thought the new pics and Emily Dickinson were reason enough to warrant a second blog entry on the same subject…

Here are some passages from Emily Dickinson that reflect the mood I was talking about:

Writing from a dead person’s point of view, in this poem Dickinson paints this cheerful picture of a graveyard:

It’s stiller than the sundown.
It’s cooler than the dawn –
The Daisies dare to come here –
And birds can flutter down –

(poem#51)

But in other ones, such as this one, the emotions are mixed, sadness mingles here with the feeling of peace:

Where every bird is bold to go
And bees abashless play,
The foreigner before he knocks
Must thrust the tears away.

(poem#1758)

While in this one, the mood turns downright sombre:

A chilly Peace infests the Grass
The Sun respectful lies —
Not any Trance of industry
These shadows scrutinize —

Whose Allies go no more astray
For service or for Glee —
But all mankind deliver here
From whatsoever sea —

(poem#1443)

I was reminded of this poem on the week-end as I strolled through one more old Berlin graveyard. But first I should explain what I’m doing in these places. I’m not particularly attracted to death, nor am I driven to seek refuge from the city bustle among the lost graves. I go there, primarily, because I find cemeteries intriguing witnesses to a city’s history – a history that, in Berlin’s case, has been rather turbulent. The cemeteries are a showcase of Berlin’s once great past and its downfall – but that is a topic that I would like to save for another blog post.

Additionally, I find the monuments and statues to be very photogenic indeed – hence that other collection of photos which I entitled Postures of Grief, which focuses on the statues and their depicition of grief and salvation. But, walking around these old and overgrown cemeteries in this season, high summer, I also found intriguing the notion to try and capture this unique look and feel, and through the photographs convey both the sense of peace and the proximity of death, in other words, this ambiguity that Dickinson so aptly called the ‘chilly peace.’

I used, once again, the Polaroid SX-70 camera and the Fuji Instax to try and capture that mood. Again, I found the Polaroid camera and the Impossible Project’s Color Shade film the perfect instrument to depict the ‘otherworldly’, dreamlike state of an old light-filled graveyard full of overgrown and crumbling tombs, walls and statues. The resulting images’ tones and colours imbue them with a sense of melancholy, of past times and of loss; a mood I find very reminiscent of some of the quieter, less dramatic works of the 18th century romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich or William Turner, who also had a fondness for depicting ruins and old, forgotten places overrun by nature in paintings full of melancholy which reflect a yearning for simpler times.

The Instax camera, on the other hand, delivers more saturated images, which paint the cemetery a different shade. Here, the photos I took in plain sunlight stress the colours of summer, highlighting the abundance of nature that has taken over these places; while in the photos taken in late afternoons or under cloudy skies, they reflect a starker, more sombre mood, where the abundance of nature seems almost menacing. I found these darker images to be the perfect conclusion for the Peace Eternal set.

I updated both the Peace Eternal and the Postures of Grief sets with new photos. Here are the links:

And here is the link to the article “The Graveyard Sensibility of Emily Dickinson” by Masud Mahmood.

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