“Joseph Plummer is remembered because he wished to be alone,” reads the first, key scrap of text in Amani Willett’s The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer. Joseph Plummer so successfully retreated from society that roads and ponds were named for him. What does it mean when your rejection of society gathers fame in your memory? The book plays with this contradiction and others: Willett follows Plummer’s path in order to get lost; he makes this book in order to give us, his readers, a map by which to lose ourselves. He draws our attention to Plummer in order to return him to obscurity.
Amani WIllett's Disappearance... intertwines three stories. One story explores the legend of the hermit Plummer who, in the late 18th century, left a New Hampshire community of 100 to live alone in the woods. This narrative is constructed through historical and contemporary photographs and illustrations, none of which actually depict Plummer, but all of which are brought to bear on the mythology that has grown around the figure of the man. Plummer (or is it Willett?) is introduced to us as a shadow moving away from us. We see him as he may have been as a boy in an anachronistic studio portrait and later as an old man, barely discernible in the darkness. Is it a ghost story, describing Plummer’s continued influence on those who feel drawn to solitude in nature? Blurred trees, strange rock formations, a bear; poetry, handwritten journal, anecdotes that may or may not be true – we are lured into the book.
Plummer’s story segues into that of Willett’s father who in 1979 purchased the land on which Plummer once lived. When we first meet Walter Willett, it’s in a small square black and white photograph: he is sitting in a boat, smiling, with a hat and mustache. It's some relief to emerge into the daylight of the 20th century until we realize that we are heading back into the forest: Willett’s father is increasingly absorbed in the building of his house, and then by the woods themselves. By the end of the book he is even more faceless than Plummer.
Both stories fold into Willett’s own larger story, in which he follows in Plummer’s steps to escape into the solitude of the forest and contemplates the distinction between escape and erasure. It’s the story he has been telling the whole time and which sneaks up on us. Willett adeptly uses an array of pictorial strategies to lead the reader through an impressionistic narrative.
The mix of images would be disorienting if it were not so confident in its own logic: there are historical photographs, photographs of objects, photographs apparently from Willett’s own family archive, and Willett’s own photographs, in black and white and in color, solid and blurred, measured and delirious. Trees, cordwood, the end of the day: Willett builds a visual language which he then manipulates with later images calling back to earlier ones, twinned images, and photographs that have been sewn and burned. Every image intrigues and invites contemplation; in the sequence they run together, at once concise and expansive. Each new image feels familiar, echoing the feel of those that came before. By the time we reach the latter part of the book, we are led to wonder whether we are the hermit, and Willett has escorted us, with photographs and text, into this dark and mysterious world. This could be your story too, Willett seems to offer.
Willett is less interested in the historical Plummer than he is in the mythology surrounding the hermit. Given how little is known about him (or how little Willett presents), this mythology is more about the place to which Plummer escapes than it is about the life that he led. Faces are removed and obscured, burned away or covered in debris. In the woods, Willett seems to suggest, your only identity is in relation to the place, and the place offers little solace. Is this erasure or escape? Time seems to cycle rather than run forward; visions mirror themselves; the only boundary that seems to matter is the treeline. It’s not a comforting image of nature, but it’s a powerful one, and Willett’s book so skillfully applies techniques of visual suggestion that it’s hard to imagine that this experience is not our own.