Losing the Light

By Peter Halstead

The day is ex post facto.
Waste explodes in triangles
Of decay in a leaded window,
Full of angles:

Pieces of the rooftop braid
Up mangles of the corkscrew
Splay, rain’s brocade
Mirroring the view.

Now that the appliqué is fixed
In place, the solar dance
Confined to glass, spaces mixed
Up in the one last chance

Of time to make the sun wet
Orange on the garrets,
The dyes are cast, but none set
With half as many carats

As our peering faces,
Shot through every pane,
Tangled up with graces:
The world’s loss the loser’s gain.

La Ferme de Saint-Simon, Paris
September 16th and 17th, 2005


I was sitting in a restaurant and thinking about how it must have felt to our friends Jon and Jen Ellis to be leaving their hotel on that street, with bits and pieces of the buildings, chimney pots, grates, brocaded curtains, etc. reflected in the old leaded windows at sunset, the rain slick on the cobblestones further mirroring the street, one giant kaleidoscope of cubist images.

I thought that the reflections of the street in its windows, spaces mirrored by their own parts, were the way a computer would store that information, i.e., all over the place, fragmented, and the way the mind also remembers things, everything at once in a confused fashion. Cities slide around in our minds in a non-geographic jumble, as both Nabokov and Biely have pointed out. Cubism isn’t an artificial overlay, an artist’s conceit, but a deeper perception of the way we see. Leaded glass is sometimes patched and triangular.

The poem is a braid of images, as our DNA is a braid. Fabric runs through the poem: the brocade of heavy curtains, the appliqué of quilted patchwork in the windows, dyes that color the quilts, and the mangle of a loom.

The second sentence basically says that, when the reflections and memories of the day are fixed in one place (i.e., in the window panes), the mind is freed from the confusion of images so it can remember the loss of those objects, i.e., Paris. Fixing motion lets it continue.

And so, by losing Paris, you gain it.

It little profits to gain the whole world and lose your immortal soul, but by losing the world and remembering that loss, you get your loss back again, and your soul in the bargain, a sort of anti-Faustian contract. Very Augustinian. I believe, with C. S. Lewis, that memory is a finite part of existence, and not just a trifle.

As Timon of Athens raves:

The moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.
(IV, iii, 426-7)

The rue Saint-Simon steals the day with its windows, and is hereby apprehended.

The solar dance is La Ronde, by Schnitzler, translated by Stoppard, painted by Picasso.

The die is cast, alea iacta est, is what Caesar said when crossing the river Rubicon. The inexorable march to night is begun; there’s no turning back.

Faces are energized, not just backlit, but shot with intensity through the glass. Waste explodes. Reflections splay and tangle. The light is active, not passive.

This has a lot in common with another Paris restaurant poem of mine, “Relais Louis XIII.”