THE HOUSE WITH ROUND WINDOWS. These images were taken in the mid-70s during several extended trips back to the house where I grew up in Beaver Falls, PA. The house plays a significant role in much of the poetry and poetics of my brother, W.D. Snodgrass. The series is the basis for a memoir in photographs and prose by the same name that I’ve completed about the family.
In addition to these images, the memoir includes both short stories and short meditation-like essays on snapshots of the family taken over the years. In one of these meditations, I noted the following regarding the house:
The House with Round Windows. The title, you should know from the onset, is wrong. Or rather, incorrect. The windows of the house weren’t round at all, in point of fact they were curved. In the same way that the corners of the big orange brick house were round—or curved. Though no question they were unusual, the house unusual, to say nothing of the stained glass windows, the dormers of the mansard roof, the stunted umbrella trees on the front lawn. The very presence of the three-story house, sitting back from the corner on its terraces, in a neighborhood of smaller frame houses and a small shopping district, in a Western Pennsylvania mill town, was out of the ordinary. Strange, even.
But it was the windows that identified the house to people in my hometown. Growing up, I heard the same story all the time. “Snodgrass? Oh yes, you must be DeWitt’s boy. You live up there on College Hill don’t you, in that big house with the round windows?” In Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, round was close enough. I was 20 years older and 3,000 miles away before it occurred to me to question it.
The following is section of one of the short stories, where the narrator finds himself back in the attic room where he grew up:
For a while, I considered De the main reason for these visits home. I had the idea to photograph the house to illustrate its relationship to my brother’s poetry. W.D. Snodgrass’s early work started what came to be known as the “Confessional School” of poetry—highly autobiographical examinations of self, in plain language, with a focus on domestic relationship and the search for love, that had a kind of confessional air, an opening-up of secrets that paid homage to and sought redemption from the god of psychotherapy. The family environment in which he was raised the standard of how not to maintain a family, how not to love. In time, others became more famous at it, others perhaps had a broader scope—Robert Lowell in Life Studies, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath—but no one else reached W. D.’s heights of lyricism and poetic form. Or, for that matter, his depths of insights into the self’s baser motives. In his later work, he worked hard to wrench himself free of the confessional label, to broaden his range with larger, even historical subjects. But his basic ideas just wouldn’t go away. Underlying all was the thought that sanctuary of any sort, whether it’s home or family, bunker or farmhouse, is a scary place.
The Venetian blinds are drawn;
Inside, it is always dark and still.
Always upon some errand, one by one,
They go from room to room, vaguely, in the wan
Half-light, deprived of will.
In photographing the house, I hoped to reveal something of my brother’s torment and intent. At one time it seemed worthwhile, even an important thing to do, a kind of collaboration—I had believed my brother’s cosmology, his epistemology, since my late teens; his view of the world, of the family, had been my view. But increasingly over the years I had become less sure. After working on the project for a couple of years, the series had grown into something more. Something else. The experience of exploring the imagery of the house had proven to be an object lesson of its own; though the premises were often the same as in my brother’s work, I sometimes came to different conclusions. As a result, my brother and I disagreed increasingly about the family. The latest disagreement, a few months earlier during a visit to his home in Erieville, New York, had sent my brother storming out of his own house in a blind fury, howling into the woods. For De the family was a subject you could talk about but not discuss.
All things considered, there seems enough lunacy in the house to go around. Downstairs, on the second floor, I can hear Mother moving about, on the pretense of looking for something, waiting for me to come down. Degas said, “The dancer is just the pretext for painting.” Maybe my desire to photograph the house is nothing more than my desire to photograph. An occasion to make images. To be sure, the rooms are awash with imagery, changing daily like flotsam and jetsam cast ashore on a deserted beach as the old woman, my mother, moves things about.
The original photographs are approximately 10” x 10” carbon-pigment images, printed on 13” x 17” archival Somerset Velvet unenhanced watercolor paper.