First I saw it in the shower, among the bubbles, then, with the properly angled shaft of sunlight, on the wings of a gray-brown moth mimicking a pinned specimen on the kitchen window. At school, directing traffic in the drop-off lane, I saw it on the head of crow working the parking lot for morsels, then on the surface of my cold coffee. “Iridescence” is a lovely word for a gratuitously lovely phenomenon and even its etymology is lovely: from iris (like the flower and the circle in the eye, which can also be iridescent), Greek for “rainbow.” I was alert for its occurrence after reading the title poem in Amy Clampitt’s What the Light Was Like (1985).
The poem’s speaker is a summer visitor to Maine. It’s June and a lobsterman she knew from earlier visits is dead. The previous October, he set off in his boat as usual and never returned. He was found adrift, dead from a stroke. The poem, twenty-three six-line verses, is typically opulent and filled with detailed observations of the natural world. Clampitt uses “iridescent” twice and “iridescence” once, each time in a different context. First, in the second stanza, which starts with a description of lilac scent: “gusting a turbulence of perfume, and every year the same / iridescent hummingbird.” When I think of iridescence, I think first of the alarming number of hummingbirds, with their jewel-like sheen, who visited our garden in Houston.
Second, in the ninth stanza, a beautiful description of dawn breaking over the Atlantic: “straight into the sunrise, a surge of burning turning the / whole ocean iridescent.”
Third, in the twenty-first stanza and most memorably, the speaker imagines the death of the lobsterman, alone on the water: “I find it / tempting to imagine what, / when the blood roared, overflowing its cerebral sluiceway, / and the iridescence / of his last perception, charring, gave way to unreversed, / irrevocable dark.” What a phrase: “the iridescence / of his last perception,” followed immediately by darkness. Clampitt’s poems, like Anthony Hecht’s and Helen Pinkerton’s, often oppose light and dark. For Clampitt, as for a great painter, life is light, and vice versa. The poem’s final word is “hummingbird.”
[On the cover of the Knopf first edition of What the Light Was Like is one of my favorite paintings by one of my favorite painters – Calm Morning (1961) by Fairfield Porter.]