Wednesday, September 15, 2010

`The Iridescence of His Last Perception'

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.]

2 comments:

William A. Sigler said...

Clampitt as poet of light I have a tough time swallowing – she seems to me more a poet of sewer pipes and subway grates from the underside out. I suppose a chanced observation of a dragonfly or peacock tail from below would qualify as iridescence to an aperture blinded by photo-sensitivity ("New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world" as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote).

Clampitt’s poem is a riff on Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” no?

“All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.”

That’s more to my liking, the way iridescence shines equally on day laborers waiting for work by the overpass and drug-crazed graffiti hieroglyphics in Krylon spray.

As for an “alarming” number of hummingbirds, I don’t know if one can ever get enough of those, as Emily Dickinson, a poet of light rather than heat, a hummingbird of joy’s ambrosia, makes clear in another poem not officially sanctioned by the U.S. postal service:

A Route of Evanescence
With a revolving Wheel --
A Resonance of Emerald --
A Rush of Cochineal --
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head --
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy Morning's Ride --

Terry Teachout said...

I didn't know you were a Porter fan. Me, too--very much so.