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 our brand-new on-air set,

As if, like light, he knew
How to jam the traffic on the avenue,

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

A mirror of the sun'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 simple backroad spot,

The way our cable is dead space
Where air waves gather 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 stix,

Where the shining air takes root
On the painter's lucid fruit,

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

Of a 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 some 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, with the complementary perk of being totally ignored by the Dutch literary set gossiping around me), the wind blowing the 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 near-final version was written three weeks later in the rue de Varenne in Paris and, twenty years later, gussied up in Hawaii. If nothing else, this poem has had a very chic gestation.

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. England’s storm light is similar, as is Hawaii’s, dark end of the world skies framing ludicrously illuminated popping green signature trees and vibrant yellow arekas. I suppose L.A. has a similar light, red Corvettes vibrating through the orange smog set against spattered billboards. In such light, weak poets have no choice but to poetize, if only as an excuse to capture the light.

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 off-center of the painting which 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 overlooked.

I had promised myself to write a poem about what seemed like a piece of chrome we had seen glowing in the sun on our Colorado 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. It turned out to be a discarded candy wrapper from a fruit bar.

The light on Vermeer's secretly vibrating subjects and the solar system's focus on a seemingly irrelevant piece of garbage was a coincidence. I wasn’t thinking of either intellectually; I was moved by them emotionally. I wouldn't say they were on my mind: they came together because they were both in my blood at the same time.

It wasn't until I saw a show at the Louvre about how artists depict time that I thought of the TV. Vermeer's light source (windows) would in modern times be a TV set.

Vermeer's dark paintings are warmed up, ironically, by his cold white light, so I thought of how dispassionate atoms create warmth in a cathode ray tube, how dead actors are kept young by movies, how old weather stays radiant, like fruit in a Dutch Master still life.

Vermeer's white is very modern in its stripping away everything about an item but its essence. Without chiaroscuro or shading. The sun is directly on a glass; only truth is let through the window. That truth is so stark that it makes everything else, no matter how richly and realistically painted, retreat. It deflects the room.

The naked glare of a TV presents a similar emphasis: anything on it is seen as true, no matter how trivial. The cold, dead, lifeless glass of the tube comes alive with more meaning than the room around it every night. We ourselves become light-addicted flowers, transfigured by the nightly news.

The triple imagery of painted fruit, candy bar, and TV infuses the poem with multiple meanings; the matrix of the solar system focuses on the candy wrapper the way Vermeer's paintings crisscross in Amsterdam, the way everything in the world shows up on TV daily. The candy wrapper is the fulcrum of news from space, as Vermeer's lighting calls out to us through time.

While the candy wrapper is a facsimile, a trivial copy mass-produced like a Platonic shadow of the master mold for all candy bar wrappers, while Vermeer's subjects are just copies of the original, and while a TV show is just a projection of the real actors, they are all 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 brain to produce candied fruit, paintings, movies, poems. We certify it by confirming its duplicity: "As Seen on TV."

The candy bar wrapper is fickle because it flutters in the wind. It is shrink-wrapped, as TV shrinks its subjects to the screen, as the world takes on a backcountry road a tiny thing like a candy wrapper and spotlights it with sun to enlarge it to a disproportionate notoriety. As a poem does with metaphor. It makes small things vast. It un-shrink-wraps them. 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 in the poem), "plant" it in our minds, in the earth, make it produce branches, metaphors.

The painter's lucid fruit is of course nature's spotlit candy, Vermeer's lit objects, and Hitchcock'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 strips its objects, as TV beams are incorporeal, the most dietetic of all.

The wrapper is a cloak of the sun, of the world; as TV wraps the real, as Vermeer wraps the solar system in the shimmer of a scarf. The colors of the galaxy are reflected in a small piece of foil. 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.

Cathy points out that the poem lightens in tone and becomes quite colloquial around the stanza where we discover its subject is 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 deeper colors. Like a waltz before a war.

The poem is one sentence, a question. 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 a high-tech Vermeer? The solar system can thus make a point as much as Vermeer or TV. Aren't there in fact clues to the puzzle all around us, a logical progression which jumps from Vermeer to TV to sun to something more? So metaphor becomes the rentrée into a colorized world that was always there, as The Wizard of Oz turns to color when Dorothy lands in Oz.

Café Luxembourg, Amsterdam
April 17th, 2001, 6:58–7:41 PM

Birmingham Train Station
7:41– 8:09 PM
2nd draft, 8:28 PM

Rue de Varenne
3rd draft, April 24th, 12:29–1:36 PM

September 2nd, 2021