The Poetry Project

Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange by Tess Taylor (MoMA, 2020)

Review by Don Yorty

A Poet and Photographer Come Together

Dorothea Lange kept journals, took notes, and added captions, one of the first documentary photographers to do so. She believed her words fortified her photographs, helped to keep order, clarified her plans and thoughts, and kept one thing from another, separating migrant farmers from Japanese Americans in an internment camp, for example. To the picture that is worth a thousand words, she included more.

When I think of Dorothea Lange, I think of photographs: “Migrant Mother,” of course, and the one she took of an eleven year old Japanese American school girl in 1942, a few days before she and her family were taken to an internment camp, her pretty blouse and innocence always somewhere in my mind. When I went to MoMA last week to see “Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures,” the photo I remember wasn't there, but another of Japanese American school children saluting the American flag was as moving.

Lange’s captions are helpful. Her photos are powerful, and taken in number can be overwhelming, but in the time it takes to read her titles, there is time to take a breath, to stop and think. One photo that terrifies me has no humans in it; there is only a farmhouse with every inch of earth plowed around it. When I read the title “Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas, June, 1938,” I know that land had been Native American before it was Spanish, then Mexican before it was in the American Depression, an immigrant farmer whose horse became a tractor that plowed right up to him. I remember, am anecdotal, and bring myself to the photo, the past the present, now.

Lange took so many notes that sometimes her hand and arm hurt. Her husband, Paul Taylor, a progressive agricultural economist, often accompanied her, and took notes for her as well. Lange, who had had polio, approached people with a limp, yet Taylor marveled at how well she fit in, getting to know her subjects and make them feel comfortable, even letting the children examine her camera and touch the lens with their fingers dirty from picking. Her assistants sometimes wrote that the migrants were “shiftless,” but Lange never judged them, only tried to write the truth as best as she could.

She listed her itinerary, the towns she visited.

Coachella xx Calipatria xx Niland xx Holtville
Calexico xx El Centro xx Brawley xx back up 99

She listed the crops the migrants picked with capitals, proper nouns like the towns.

Lettuces xx Melons xx Carrots xx Peas xx Cantaloupe xx Potatoes
Apricots xx Peaches xx Berries xx Alfalfa xx Beans xx Cherries xx Sugar beets

She asked herself questions, reminded herself, and made observations.

What does it mean to photograph home?

1935, Families of squatters along a side road.
All have house cars, get water at service station.

HOT xxxxxxxxxxxx troubled by sand, dust & wind

Note to Self: Get wide-angle-lens—

…it was especially necessary to show the American people themselves again in that light.

When Lange wrote about the migrants, she kept them anonymous and only recorded what they said.

*Where we was we wasn’t rich but everybody knew me

We trust in the Lord and we don't expect much.

Yessir, we're starved, stalled, and stranded.*

In the Japanese American internment camps, she wrote down every name she could, believing perhaps that people aren’t missing as long as there’s a name attached to them. One can only imagine what was going through her head.


Fuluoka Franklin | 3 sons in Navy | all born in NY
Haino Kashi | chemist
Sam Hari | gardener | baby
Gerry Yokomizo | hybridizer
William Katsuki | landscape gardener
Peter Gozo | young scientist…

To accompany “Words and Pictures,” MoMA commissioned the poet Tess Taylor to write a book. It was an obvious choice. Taylor had been studying Lange for over a decade, three years alone going over her notes. She lives in California too, born in the town that Lange photographed at the end of the Depression, a suburb of developing bungalows that were a sign of the prosperity to come. Lange had been Californian by choice; on a trip around the world in 1918, she stopped in San Francisco, was robbed and settled down to make a good living taking portraits of the town’s wealthiest until one day on a whim she photographed a workers’ demonstration, and her view began to change.

Tess Taylor wrote Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, and at the exhibition, near the entrance, there is a copy at a table for anyone to sit and read, a book in gray-tones that resembles a photo, but opens up to poems. Slim, but not slight, it is easy to hold and put in your pocket to carry along. It takes about an hour to finish, a witness to the fact that poetry is its essence, the result of a lot of work, the span of the year Taylor spent traveling California visiting the towns where Lange had photographed, and revisiting her notes.

Dear Dorothea,

I wrote all year at rest stops
on roadsides xxxxxx at gas stations

xxxxxx in sweltering dust
beside the Glide Church

near your old studio;
& beneath pesticide-sprayed walnut leaves

near the Sunset dryers
& xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx so many tents

in a bungalow where lawyers
defend caged children

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx also one summer morning
when stage and sticky monkey

met the soft fog off the sea—
at labor camps reclaimed by crabgrass

& amid xxxxxxxxxx evicted stoves

near rice paddies of Knights Landing
near Esparto where sunflowers

sank into
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx their black hulls—

At Codornices Creek
behind the brownshingle xxxxxxxxx you came home to

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx saw one yellow finch—

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx thought again about the body
xxxxx how to house the fragile human

in labor
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx dreams xxxxxxxxxxxx & rest

As I read Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, MoMA’s visitors came and went looking at the photos; and the people in the photos, artifacts like prehistoric insects caught in amber, seemed alive yet. Time and place, then and now do not exist I began to think, and we the people now and then are really all there is. In a moment of serendipity, I ran into Tess Taylor a few days later at a poetry reading she was giving at KGB Bar in the East Village. The facts that Lange let migrants be anonymous and named Japanese Americans were observations that Taylor talked about at the reading; in this article above you might have thought those observations were my own, but I am relaying what she said. Where do then and now, she or I end or begin?

I agree with Taylor that Lange’s notes are poetic, scrawled, jotted down in a moment like the Beats did, first thought the best. ”They have a staccato rhythm,” she says, “often written in pentameter, strange and beautiful notes of people trying to get by.” As well as a poem is written is as well as it is said, and Tess Taylor reads her Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange with clarity and presence, not a photographer and a poet, but a combination of them, metamorphic in the sense that it is a book of honest fusion without a blur in it, perfect for what it is.


If, in apricot dust
you weave past white sage
& climb over pickle weed

you’ll pick out a path
some channel for motion
low & half-hidden

& soft between bushes;
if you push in
& head north in the morning

xxxxxxxxxxxx you might find one shoe a helmet
a toothpaste tube
& riverbank footprints

dog xxx wildcat xxx deer xxx human—
Some desert morning, light prickling
birdsong awake

you might startle
a duck
from green riverbanks—

Dark among willows
the sign says xxxxxxxxxx POISON
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx NO ENTRADA

(& in sagebrush
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx your cellphone
can’t say whether xxxxxxxx you’re on the US or Mexico—)

& in blue shade
under the overpass
many cliff swallows

dart from clay homes
In chaparral
beside the slow river

you might walk for awhile
as the road grows distant;
might feel the silence

how you’re just walking—
might feel xxxxxxxxxfor a moment
how xxxxxxxxxxxxxx it’s just earth again

#261 — Summer 2020