Berenice Abbott penned the poem Birthdays when she was about twenty years old, most likely during her initial residence in New York City, where she shared a downtown apartment with Djuna Barnes and Malcolm Cowley. In 1921, she left for Europe and gained renown as a photographer in Paris alongside fellow American expatriate Man Ray. Although she rarely wrote poetry, Abbott published an untitled poem in the Parisian avant-garde literary journal transition in 1927. It reads simply:
Don’t discuss life, people, problems. Don’t voice poverty.
Returning to New York in 1929, Abbott began to develop her monumental photographic project Changing New York. In 1937 the artist, teacher, and art writer Nathaniel Pousette-Dart commissioned Abbott to develop a course in photography for the Art Adventure League, a printed educational program in studio arts training. Abbott stumbled upon Birthdays and forwarded the sheet to Pousette-Dart (whose wife, Flora, was a poet) with the note:
Hooray! I did write a “poem” once. Had forgotten it. It burst from my fevered brain about twenty years ago. It emerged from an old box of papers & greeted me in wan reproach for my denial of offspring. At the time it came hissing from my emotional center. I was looking at a birthday cake with its lighted candles. Please bury & forget.
Indeed, Birthdays remained buried and forgotten until it emerged recently from a box of materials uncovered in the studio of Richard Pousette-Dart, Nathaniel’s son.
Although simple and whimsical, Birthdays foretells Abbott’s fascination with photography, especially its celebration of “candles and their light.” Decades later, Abbott would even photograph candles for her scientific studies. More poignantly, the note to Pousette-Dart references a “wan reproach for my denial of offspring,” alluding to her longtime partnership with the art writer Elizabeth McCausland.
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