Monday, June 03, 2013

`As Iodine Upon the Cataract'

The lettering on street signs pops into focus at the last moment, if at all. In a city as vast as Houston, one I know only patchily, this makes navigation frustrating. In lecture halls, PowerPoint is indecipherable (often a blessing). Up close, I’m fine. Books remain accessible. I’ve worn bifocals, of progressively stronger prescription, for twenty years. After an eye examination last week, the optometrist concluded I have cataracts. It’s distance I have trouble with, not proximity. This summer I’ll undergo two surgeries, routine affairs, I’m told. Still, one recoils from anything touching the eyes. Emily Dickinson writes (Johnson #853): 

When One has given up One's life
The parting with the rest
Feels easy, as when Day lets go
Entirely the West

“The Peaks, that lingered last
Remain in Her regret
As scarcely as the Iodine
Upon the Cataract.”

In a word-association test, “cataract” elicits “waterfall” from me, not an age-related opacity in the lens of the eye. I know the cataract at Cohoes on the Mohawk River, north of Albany. As a reporter I covered the filming of Ironweed and watched Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson) boarding a bus near the partially frozen falls. In the nineteenth century, the town’s newspaper was The Cohoes Cataract. Dickinson, who had vision troubles and feared blindness, plays with both senses. Scholars retroactively diagnose her with iritis, an inflammation of the eye muscles that left her with a painful sensitivity to bright light. In 1864 (when the poem above was written) and 1865, she underwent two lengthy treatments with a Boston ophthalmologist, who ordered her to remain indoors in dim light, not to read and to write only with a pencil. In her letters she called her confinement “eight months of Siberia.” Iodine compounds are still in use to treat cataracts.

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