Delft Light

By Peter Halstead

on a candy wrapper glittering in the road

Was it really different for Vermeer
To light his subjects so they appear

As cold electrons televise
Some silent movie's ancient skies,

Like an aging actor’s silhouette
On a brand-new TV set,

As if, like him, he knew
How to stir up comment on the avenue,

The way the artist's naked stare
Finds a corollary in a pear,

A mirror of the day’s bright light
Rendering the day around it trite,

A tiny detail painted lush
By the summer’s stained-glass brush

That focuses the network's common lot
On this humble backroad spot,

The way a TV is dead space
Where the current gathers in one place,

Reveling in our rapt attention
Like a news-addicted gentian,

When, nearing its cinematic star,
We discover it’s a candy bar,

An industrial facsimile
As seen, apparently, on TV,

Our couch potato gaze still fixed
On its fickle, shrink-wrapped sticks,

Where the shining air takes root
In the director’s lucid fruit,

The sky’s reflected cathode rays
Bouncing off the fat-free blaze

Of that dietetic solar clone
Where the prism of the world is shown,

Which, rather than a passing quirk,
Is the point of the entire work?


I wrote the first draft of this after seeing a few of the few authenticated Vermeers in the State Museum in Amsterdam, sitting in the Café Luxembourg over cognac and an especially nice tarte Tatin (the classic picture of a poet, and, like a poet, totally ignored by the Dutch literary set gossiping around me), the wind blowing the outside canal trees wildly. The second draft was written in the Birmingham train station and on the train to London, being stared at by a pimply tattooed teen and his purple girl. The final version was written three weeks later in the rue de Varenne in Paris.
It started out as a simple reaction to Vermeer’s light, known as Delft light after the light prized by painters in the Dutch town. Provence has that same sort of light, amber summer light filtered through the white chalk dust of the limestone hills and reflected off the yellowish stone of the ancient bridges. I suppose L.A. has a similar light, red Corvettes vibrating through the orange smog set against splattered billboards.
Vermeer’s maids have moon-shaped faces, moonlit in dark rooms by stark, naked light through stained-glass windows in ancient frames, the Golden Age’s version of the TV set. In addition, there is often some irrelevant item at the center or off-center of the painting that glows incongruously bright, as the letter in Mistress and Maid, the maid’s hat in The Love Letter, the ermine shawl in The Guitar Player, the collar in Woman with a Lute, the vase in The Music Lesson, the pitcher in Girl Interrupted at Her Music, the glass of wine in The Glass of Wine, the pitcher in The Girl with the Wine Glass, the hat and shawl in Officer and Laughing Girl, the sleeves and maid’s collar in Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, the letter and drapes in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, the paper in The Astronomer, the map in The Geographer, the Bible in The Allegory of Faith, the pearls and earring in Woman with a Pearl Necklace, and, most famously, the collar and milk in The Milkmaid.
Vermeer accentuates the real subject of the painting in bright light, which might otherwise be thought trivial. As well, Dutch painters of the same era did a particularly nice job with plumped, juicy, tangible grapes and fruit of all kind, and it had made quite an impression, maybe because the food in Amsterdam is so bad.
I had also promised myself to write a poem about a candy wrapper we had seen glowing in the sun on the ranch’s dirt road before leaving for Europe. It had seemed from a distance to be something electronic, preternaturally bright, and the illusion continued until we were almost on top of it and it turned out to be a simple discarded candy wrapper from a fruit bar.
The light on Vermeer’s secretly important subjects and the solar system’s intense selection of a seemingly irrelevant piece of garbage was too parallel to ignore. Not that I was thinking of either instance intellectually; I was moved by them emotionally, and so they came together only because they were both in my blood at the same time: I wouldn’t say they were in my mind. My mind was clueless, as usual. My mind might have been thinking of two poems, but my blood knew better.
But it wasn’t until I saw a show at the Louvre about how artists depict time that I thought of the TV. In retrospect, Vermeer’s light source, windows, would in modern homes be more likely to be a TV set.
Vermeer’s dark paintings are warmed up, ironically, by his cold white light, so I thought how dispassionate atoms create warmth nightly in a cathode ray tube, how dead actors are kept young by movies, how old weather stays radiant, like the fruit of the Dutch Masters.
Vermeer’s white is very modern in its stripping away everything about an item but its essence. No chiaroscuro or shading is allowed. The sun is directly on it, and only truth is allowed. That truth is so stark that it makes everything else, no matter how richly and really painted, retreat.
In the same way, I thought how the naked glare of a TV presents as true anything on it, no matter how trivial, and how the cold, dead, lifeless glass of the tube comes alive with more meaning than our lives themselves every night, as if we ourselves were light-addicted flowers.
This triple imagery of painted fruit, candy bar, and TV infuses the language of the poem with double meanings, at least, so that the world gathers in the fruit, in the candy wrapper, and on TV; the matrix of the solar system focuses on the candy wrapper the way Vermeer’s paintings crisscross at the Concordiaplatz, the Place Concorde of the lit trivia, the way everything in the world shows up on TV quite rapidly. We are the news-addicted flowers, as the candy wrapper is the fulcrum of news from space, as Vermeer’s lighting beams inspiration to us through time.
While the candy wrapper is a facsimile, a trivial copy mass-produced like a Platonic shadow of the echt candy bar, while Vermeer’s subjects are just copies of the original, and while a TV show is just a Xerox of the real actors, they are in fact larger than life, more important as artifacts than the originals, made possible by technology, by art, by some mirage in nature that lets us triangulate facts in our brains to produce candied fruit, paintings, movies, poems. And then we give it reality with the tacky boast, “As Seen on TV.”
The candy bar is fickle because it flutters in the wind. It is shrink-wrapped as TV shrinks its subjects to the screen and as the world takes a tiny thing like a candy wrapper and spotlights it with sun to enlarge it to universal proportions. This is also what a poem does with metaphor. It makes small things vast. It un-shrink-wraps. It opens the candy bar, as someone seems to have done before the poem begins.
The air, the sun, the planet, the galaxy, the forces of nature, by highlighting the fruit bar (it was in fact strawberry, and went through quite a few flavors before emerging as pear), “plant” it in our minds, in the earth, make it produce branches, metaphors.
The director’s lucid fruit is of course nature’s spotlit candy, Vermeer’s lit objects, as well as a movie director’s subjects.
Light from the TV’s cathode rays becomes the same as light from solar rays or light from oil paints. The blazing candy wrapper is the blazing sun. It is fat-free, as the bar claimed, as Vermeer’s gaze is naked and stripping, as TV beams are incorporeal.
It is a clone of the sun, of the world, of god; as TV is an icon of the real, and as Vermeer is an insight into almost divine truths, so all the colors of the galaxy are reflected in a small piece of foil. And of course, this is really the point. The universe swirls around us as a disguise to present us at last with a piece of candy, a love letter, a quick look, a work of art. If we miss this, we miss the meaning of it all.
Cathy points out that the poem lightens in tone and becomes quite colloquial around the stanza where we discover it’s a candy bar. Clichés like “as seen on TV,” “shrink-wrapped,” and “couch potato” make it fast and junk-foody, easy to understand, lulling the reader before it descends into the depths of its deeper colors, like a waltz before a war.
The poem is one sentence, a question, so you have to go back to the beginning to realize that the question is really: have things changed so much, or are they just the same? Isn’t TV the same thing as Vermeer? And thus can’t the solar system itself make a point as much as Vermeer or TV? Aren’t there in fact intimations of divinity everywhere around us, clues to the puzzle? Not any particular brand of divinity, mind you, just a general sort of keeping track, a logical progression which jumps from Vermeer to TV to sun to a cosmic intelligence. So metaphor becomes a hopefully entertaining entrée to a more colored world. As someone said of, I think, Schnabel: music was just the start of it.