Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 36, December 2013)

Jared Stanley
The Phoropter

Here’s what happens when you go to get your eyes checked: you sit in a chair, and an optometrist puts this large metal thing up to your face. It has two holes in it, is cold. You look through it at variously-sized, blurry letters and numbers. The large metal thing, kidney-shaped, is covered in dials and switches, is suspended from the ceiling, is full of lenses. As you’re looking through it, the optometrist switches the dials, and asks:

“Which one is clearer? This? (flips the dial) Or this?”

The operation is repeated some number of times, depending on the shape of your eyes and the extent of your vision impairment. Once your vision has been adjusted enough that you can read even the smallest letter from each individual eye, the optometrist makes out a prescription and sends you on your way, giving you a pair of sunglasses to wear for the rest of the day because she’s dilated your eyes and they’re sensitive to light. The machine is called a phoropter.

If this little visit to the eye doctor is an allegory of poem reading, a play, its cast of characters might read like this:

The Optometrist is a poet.
The Phoropter is a poem, an occasionally precise machine that adjusts vision.
The Patient is a reader, someone who knows they’re having a hard time seeing.
The Eye Chart is a metonym for the world.
The Spectacles (offstage) are a continual residue of the event of your eye checkup, or a certain after effect of reading the poem. Lenses in a frame.

The poem, in the guise of The Phoropter, is our concern, though of course The Phoropter makes no sense without each of the other characters in the play – if The Optometrist didn’t use it to give The Patient a pair of Spectacles, then what’s it good for? Could we ever consider The Phoropter on its own? Each of the many lenses contained within The Phoropter (“This? Or this”) are like lines in a poem, like the darting changes within a poem’s feelings: as the lenses change, the poet continually adjusts them and says, “please read the fifth line.” Sometimes it is blurry. Often it is blurry. The fifth line spells P E C F D. The F is hard to see – until it achieves clarity (a clarity close to the shadows in de Chirican Piazzas), and the shape that fills the world goes from E to F in one flick of a lens. It’s transformative, if you think that reading a poem is like reading the world.

Some poems may work like a clarifying medium, a lens; I also like the kinetic action of The Optometrist interacting with The Patient, because they both try to decide, together, which of the many lenses are the most clear, or perhaps what clarity actually is – I don’t think of clarity as a kind of simplification, or delimiting of a given set of phenomena: Proust is an extraordinarily clear and precise writer, but his precision is directly related to his complexity – the more things are clearly there, the more obscure, or complicated, their relation. You might say clarity and abundance are not at odds. You might.

This relationship between The Optometrist and The Patient is special – The Optometrist cannot give The Patient a prescription without The Patient’s input, without his or her patient application, his or her own set of decisions. And those decisions lead, inevitably, to the next set of decisions. The lenses flip and flip inside the complex machinery of the The Phoropter. It might explain why my poems use the word “or” a lot – it’s not a matter of indecision, it’s a kind of extension or greeting to the reader of the poem – we could do it this way, or this way. Which is clearer, or more pleasurable? I would say dizzying, but my friends with astigmatisms might feel that was too much.

It may be useful to dwell on the notion of the reader as The Patient. Doesn’t that put the reader in an awkward position? Is there something about the reader that should be fixed? Speaking as a reader, I have always come to the poetry I love (and have discarded the poetry I dislike) because I have needed some kind of change that poems precipitate. I have needed something from the poem, aware or unaware – it’s not therapeutic necessarily, because poems rarely correct symptoms – in the case of our little allegory, the change is to the vision, but it could just as well be any of the other senses that’re out of whack. As a Patient, I put myself in the care of The Optometrist because I like her, she has a nice demeanor, I think I can trust her, she likes to talk about the place we live and how strange it is (I also like to do this), and the choral refrain of our discussion, “This? Or this?” gives a kind of repetitious, stiff-but-flexible backbone to the leisurely back and forth of our chatter. I rather like being in someone’s care, even in this kind of strange, artificial way. The Patient’s pupils are dilated, and the dialogue meanders in the dark room.

Now, about The Eye Chart. This is, of course, the weakest part of my metaphor. The world is not made of letters of descending sizes, no matter how much Poetry wishes it were. What is interesting about the chart, however, is that it’s a pretty good predictor of how well you’ll be able to see, for example, a gopher snake warming itself in the middle of Highway 431 on an April day, or the tiny hairs on your lover’s ears from across a dimly lit kitchen full of strangers – that’s to say, the eye chart, and its capabilities, leave a residue – and perhaps that is what reading a poem does, too – it helps gets you a bit closer to a kind of clarity, though such clarity is often unfixed, because The Patient, once he or she has been released back into the wild, can always use peripheral vision to unfocus the eyes, to say nothing of the experience of waking up in the morning to a world uncorrectably blurred; also very poetic things to do.