Last summer, I began an experiment of waking early and describing the light. I was inspired by Uta Barth’s photographs, especially from the series …and of time, which are of natural light falling across surfaces in her home. I didn’t feel like leaving the house, but I also hated the house, so I needed to find the house interesting if I were to stay in it. Because describing light amounts to describing things, even if I wanted to, it was difficult to be outside where the light illuminates so many things and there are no convenient borders as those produced by a window.
I also tried to practice the gaze of a camera by avoiding figurative language, especially simile. A camera pointed at light uses light to snare light, while to write about light is to transform it entirely, to give in to optical illusions, to rely on the likeness of appearances. So I was a fool who light taught language. I began to ask, what on this earth does not exist because of the transformation of language? And couldn’t the same be said for light? Could light be responsible for the writing of light and, therefore, also its transformation?
Francis Ponge also wanted to describe the light, or something like the light: the sky. Not only the sky, but also the impression of the sky. As well as the urns and statues of cherubs, the bus by which he moved through the landscape, memory. There was also a war, but he doesn’t mention it. All of this, together, even the absence, composed the impression—“the daylight of death, the daylight of eternity”—because the firmament is not divisive, despite the seventh verse of Genesis, and it contains in it everything and every impression, and it gives us life. It is difficult to know when to stop talking about it once you’ve started.
And it is as if the sky has a unique gravitational pull on the attention; while complex, it appears uncomplicated, whereas on earth, there are so many diverse objects that exist in our perception solely by light, although we tend to think of them as alight and of the sky as a simple, one-dimensional wash of the color blue. To attend to one requires a kind of violent blindness toward the others, while the sky allows us to maintain the delusion that we see it absolutely.
Even in its very real presence, the sky, saturated as it is with atmosphere and light, eludes us. Like, what is a word for this light that is not honey, that is not golden? Why does the morning sun, throwing itself over the wall, awaken memories of our parents? And why are the memories so gracious and painful?
“What impels me to write,” Ponge says, “either the desire to recast the picture, preserving forever its apparent joy, or the desire to comprehend the cause of my emotion to analyze it.” One is a desire to shape and reify the image; the other to resolve intellectually the wound it leaves. There is no magic in the constative exercise that records the “raw quality” of an object, as Ponge says, no enchantment in their “inalienable right” to be object only. But just try to describe the world as it is without casting a spell that animates it. Sight might function like a camera, but language transfigures.
It seems like magic—the way the world enters in and then comes out again different because transformed and often splendid. Not because language necessarily recuperates the fallen world but because it is a world, which like the one we see with sight is plainly magnificent and strange. Pound’s phanopoeia in which a poem throws an image onto the screen of the imagination: magic, Robert Duncan suggests, the image that we make meaningful. “For words are not thoughts we have but ideas in things,” Duncan writes, “and the poet must attend not to what he means to say but to what what he says means.”
Not a spell but an image the soul casts out and then steps into (Meister Eckhart). The light-within illuminates with language objects made visible through the light-without’s reflection. Yet by the time I have found the word for this light, it will have been extinguished. To endure the passage of light, which is the passage of time, one must compose a moment into memory. Ponge’s notebook, a record of time and perception, attempts and failures, seems an aid to the always-in-progress “Poem Struck in Afterthought on a Provence Sky” by pausing time and then repeating the moment, a kind of repetition compulsion that desires to conquer the shadow of a beautiful day, the day that “holds all nature under the spell (the terror) of its authority.” And in each repetition the image shifts and is also all things at once: “an octopus, cyanide, the explosion of petals.”
Elaine Scarry says that beauty requires our “constant perceptual acuity.” This is so because, like an octopus, Ponge writes, beauty emits a blue-black inky screen for its privacy, and our attention must see through this screen and yet not dismiss it. Attention excludes nothing (Krishnamurti).
But, no. That’s not fully right.
Perhaps beauty is more like a parasite that compels its host to emit a blue-black inky screen—a poem—that it hides behind. Then the poem becomes a surface that doubles beauty by collecting and then projecting light: a smear, the shape of water, breath on a cold day.