October 23, 2012

Properties of Light

Sometimes I write poetry. More often than not, this happens in bursts of organic spontaneity: a thought or an image makes an indelible impression on my mind heart, and I feel keenly the artist's unique privilege and burden of capturing that momentpreserving it for myself like a fragile flower in a glass dome or a delicate seashell that comes to represent an entire summer afternoon spent on the beach in lazy, dizzy childhood glory. If someone else should happen to read that poem and see in it a glimmer of light, that is nothing short of a miracle. 

One such poem came into being on a spring evening two years ago when a friend and I went to see a jazz combo perform at the Orem Public Library. My friend, he was a poet in every sense of the word: a writer, a thinker, someone who believed in books and souls and living freely. Perhaps I should thank him for the creative energy I felt that night. Or maybe it was the humble evening light, glowing quiet and dusty on the stained glass windows behind the performers. No doubt the music itself was inspiring: jazz is thrilling and beautiful for its improvisational qualities. I pulled out the little black notebook I carried with me at the time and began weighing words, feeling their contours, and writing them down as they came to me. My inspiration was a sweet little memory of evenings I used to spend in the back of my family's station wagon watching the sunset and imagining it as a glorious palette, smeared and blended by the bristles of treetops clustered along the road and behind cornfields. 

"Cosmic Painters"

On long drives down US-12 in the evening,
I used to imagine
treetops as paintbrushes
coloring the canvas of the Midwestern sky:

pink for cotton candy,
orange for Michigan campfires,
streaks of purple for moments I felt invincible.

Now I see these same hues pierced by the jagged mountaintops,
bleeding watercolor over the Western expanse.
Now I see

pink childhood,
orange lazy summers,
purple fragile moments.

In those colors I taste
a forbidden nectar,
painfully sweet,
robbing me of my verdant garden,
my paradise,
my place.
I ask out loud:

            Who paints the desert sky?

The poem is perhaps more interesting for its ideas than for its poetic qualities. I really did face a certain crisis of place when I first came to Utah six years ago. The mountains were glorious to me, but they forced me to reevaluate how I think about space. One thing I've noticed in my time living here is that you can just be driving along, slightly perceiving that you are on an upward incline, and within moments you'll be perched above the valley, viewing it from a totally different vantage point. That layering of heights and perspective is just not a feature of the Michigan landscape I grew up in. There, everything is framed by trees. (And oh, how I love those trees.) Here, the mountains give the world colossal, imposing edges. I distinctly remember so many times my freshman year just looking up because there was a reason to. Looming above me were mountain ranges whose distance from me I could not accurately gauge. (This is still true for me: is Y Mountain in our backyard or in a land far, far away? It's hard to know.) Sometimes those mountains made me feel small; other times, the sky seemed more tangible and the world more knowable as clouds shrouded the peaks, almost close enough to touch.

My poem specifically deals with a loss of home, using the sunset as a metaphor for how I perceive the world. My Michigan self (which is, incidentally, my younger self) had developed my own set of origin myths and explanations for why the world operated as it did. Moving to Utah (and becoming an adult, incidentally) sharply re-contextualized these questions for me, and the answers just aren't as simple when you're a twentysomething. I've since learned to rejoice in this fact. What good is being a twentysomething if you aren't daily confronted with existential crises? No doubt much of the world's art owes its creation to these kinds of crises and uncertainties. If I were to write a similar poem now, my focus would shift from the sunset to a related question of light.

One of the first differences I noticed between my home state and my current desert dwelling was the character of heat. In Michigan, as in most of the Midwest and stretching east to the Atlantic, the summer heat is imbued with a tangible, sticky humidity. The air here in Utah is much more arid, and the heat, rather than oppressively surrounding you as it seems to in a humid climate, bears a more direct relationship to the sun. Standing in the middle of a parking lot on a hot July day in Provo, you could likely bake into a potato chip on the spot. The sun is a force; you can feel it pulse and burn. Step into the shade for a moment and you might forget it's a blistering 100 degrees back in that exposed parking lot. This same phenomenon is what makes the light here seem very vertical, beaming down on us from a precise location above, like a revelation. Compare this to a place like Sweden, a place I love, a place where the light is horizontal and diffused. 

I've heard that photographers and filmmakers love Scandinavia for its Nordic light. I love Scandinavia for all kinds of reasons, but that's another story. I'll admit, Utah afternoons are not my favorite. The light is so imposing and greedy, like it knows it's a gift to us. But in the evening, it is something altogether different for me. I can't count the number of times I have walked out of my office on campus or the library as the sun is setting and found myself breathless with wonder and full of gratitude. The sun (that superstar) sinks behind the mountains to the West and suddenly, its light has edges. As I look out my bedroom window upon the mountains to the east, I can see the play of light and shadows. The light has dimensions. It slants and spills over the mountain's edge. This phenomenon is especially stunning in the autumn months, when the mountainsides are covered in blushy pinks, bronzy yellows, and rusty oranges. The evening light is rosy and golden and dynamic. It glows. There are few things sweeter or holier to me than catching a glimpse of this slanted light, suspended in the air so briefly before darkness takes over.

Experiences like those not only inspire me to write, but beg me to do so. Heaven knows I only respond to this call a fraction of the time, and it's time for that to change. So here I am, sharing shards and fragments of my slanted light as it comes to me in fleeting impressions and vibrant moments that are nothing short of poetry itself.


  1. This post was so beautiful and evocative! You need to blog more often :)

    1. Thanks, Linda! I'm making it a goal to blog at least once a week through the end of 2012. Hopefully I can sharpen my writing skills that way. You are one of the people whose diligence in blogging inspired me to take it back up!

  2. love this! have you thought about publishing your beautiful poetry?

    1. You're too kind, miss Brynn. I have considered submitting some of my poetry for publication, but I'd like to have a little more of a portfolio first. Thanks for the encouragement!