Sunday, July 28, 2013

`A Fine Word for a Hateful Thing'

Daniel Mark Epstein’s “The Cataract” (The Traveler’s Calendar: New Poems, 2002):  

“Lately the world seems darker,
Especially in the evenings,
And I light more lamps
To see no better than ever
Familiar faces and things:” 

Not so much darkness as diminished acuity, softness of focus, like the petroleum jelly early directors smeared on the lens of their cameras. Street signs and numbers on office doors blur. Reading becomes translating. I watch as my brain fills in meanings, refusing gaps in perception, a silent process my ophthalmologist confirmed. 

“Wayworn works of Art,
Books known almost by heart.
Is this the cataract, what
The Romans used to call
A portcullis or waterfall  

“Descending to subtract
From the sum of my seeing?
A fine word for a hateful thing,
Though now the doctors say
They can lift the veil in a day.” 

More like twenty or thirty minutes per eye. The doctor works Thursdays, and I’ll take off the Fridays to recover. Epstein, translator of Plautus, traces the word back to cataracta: waterfall, portcullis, floodgate.” An opacity in the lens of the eye.  

“Who takes joy in the word
For a blur that steals his light?
The power is its own reward
And a gift of second sight,
This joy to build a tower,  

“Without fear or self-pity,
Of words for the horror
That attends the end of light,
A castle to stand bright
In the ruins of a city.” 

The power to name is its own reward. Cataract is densely packed with inference and history – a one-word poem. Think of Lear and the Fool on the heath: 

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world,
Crack Nature's moulds, all germains spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man!”

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