James McCormick: Lewis Carroll’s Last Photograph of Alice

Oxford, 1870

“It’s too late to correct it,” said the Red Queen: “when you’ve once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences.”
Through the Looking-Glass

Neither he nor she says a thing.  She’s sitting, posed.  And he’s telling
The seconds that make light and silver nitrate into something not painting,

Not sight.  Into a kind of world.  Into a kind of double of this world, only
Where color becomes lost, where her pale lavender day-dress will become gray,

Darker gray her exactly flattened aubergine hair-bow, as though in a pencil
Sketch.  But that can never be colored in.  She sits so still that she can feel,

Laced tight in its ribcage, her heart, also telling:  telling the times that she’s
Done this before.  That he’s done this before – made her into a Chinese

Girl in shivery silks, a beggar-child, a May-queen with a hawthorn crown,
The leaves in the print shining black:  a kind of world.  Eighteen

Since May, she wonders if, for this photograph, she’s herself:  not even
Props – no fern spindly in its pot, no lapful of black cherries.  No straw sun-

Hat to slant beneath her curved fingers as she lay pretending to sleep:
He’d told her to.  Just as she’d told him to tell a story during the rowing-trip

To Godstow.  He told it, Holsteins and bored hayricks heavy against the river.
Was she that girl then – the girl falling slowly into a low hall of locked doors?

Or the girl in the slim boat, the girl sitting still as he made a world around
Her, or a kind of her, of this world?  Neither she nor he says a thing, but behind

Her head, cracks pock and chip and split the wall.  And forever will:  The wall
Could be remade, could be replastered, repainted olive or Prussian blue or teal –

No matter, in that double, not painting, not sight.  She, too:  she’ll be forever posed,
Forever uncolored.  Unspeaking.  Waiting for him to tell her into a world.  Fixed.

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