Night Watch

By Peter Halstead

At the flagging season’s natural end
Unfurling from the pastel swatches
In the sky, can anything in fact suspend
Declining day with the cautious watches

Of the night, with the race
Of fading sea or spray of time
Glowing from a guileless face
Whose hands are frozen in their prime?

Can a two-dimensional gouache
Of ticking postcard beaches
Whose penduluming oceans slosh
The dark world with their reaches

Really balance out the spiral swings
Of the jeweled summer’s broken springs?

Rue de Varenne
February 18th–25th, 2005


By the time Rembrandt finished his painting The Night Watch in 1642, his work had come to nothing. Possibly it was too good for his patrons. Rather than mediocritize it, he in fact went deeper, farther away from contemporary notions of intelligibility. His isolation was not much different from what Saul Bellow suffered in Chicago centuries later.
Armed guards had in the past protected Amsterdam against the night. So the painting is a memento mori, a reminder of Amsterdam’s free society that needed no such militancy, and yet a caution that darkness was just around the corner.
Sleepless artists in the small hours of their own dark nights protect us against the demons of mediocrity, against the countdown to oblivion. They remember the time, as watches do.
Originally this poem emerged as a coda to “Découpage,” my apparently endless poem in Volume 10 about the bittersweet impossibility of an expatriate summer in the Paris Tuileries (or Toiletries, as my spellcheck snidely emendates). Home is too deeply programmed into the cortex: no substitutions allowed.
Mozart often added completely new material in his codas. However, music isn’t language. My fragile battalion didn’t seem emotionally ready for an about-face. The coda undercut the inexorability of the poem’s already lugubrious lurching towards its metaphysical sunset, and I decided it was a separate thought.
The poem is a comforter patched out of various obsessions: poems written to friends on the backs of postcards with their usual heroic commentaries on tourism; Bellow’s frenzied diatribe against society and death; the yearning after intemperate miracles—romantic South Pacific lanais; sunsets mimicked in Mai Tais; adolescent crushes in (or because of) bougainvillea’d gardens; muscle beach memories—all documented in Volume 1, Sea Sun.
In rereading the poem, I notice that I use watch terms with double meanings. So that the more technical meanings will be joyfully apparent, here follows a brief discourse on the mechanics of watchful time, which can be skipped with no apparent repercussions.

In the earliest watches, the motion of the gears was controlled haphazardly by a wheel with a heavy rim, called the balance. In the 1650’s, Robert Hooke discovered how to use a spring to govern the oscillations of the balance. Around 1675, Christiaan Huygens patented a watch with a spiral balance spring, or hairspring. A balance spring is a steel ribbon wound into a spiral form. This spring moves the balance wheel as gravity moves a pendulum. When a person winds a watch, the wheel is moved in one direction, which winds the spring. When the spring unwinds, a process officially called the restorative torque, it in turn moves the wheel in the other direction.
Like those clacking balls set in motion by a hand, or like the ebb and flow of tide initiated by the tug of the moon, a watch’s exchange of energy would pendulum indefinitely except for losses due to the rubbing together of air molecules or of the spring’s steel. So in practice, a watch eventually stops, unless wound again by human interference. We have a hand in time. We share the cost of its passing.
The balance wheel is mounted on an axis called a staff or a spindle. Starting in 1704, diamonds and sapphires were used at either end of the balance spindle as pivots in which the mast was set, as jewels can be drilled more exactly, causing less friction. We now use synthetic jewels, made from powdered aluminum. The jewels are pressed into holes smaller than their own diameters and held there by friction.
In 1755, Thomas Mudge invented the lever escapement, or escape wheel, a sprocket gear, or club-toothed wheel, that only touches the balance wheel during winding, leaving it otherwise free to rotate friction-free.
A watch has four pairs of gears, known as a wheel train, which produce 4,000 times the energy of the spring, allowing the watch to work longer. Any errors in placement or tolerance are thus exaggerated enormously.
The self-winding pocket watch was invented in Switzerland in 1777. In 1923, the self-winding wristwatch appeared. It attached a swinging weight to a modern spindle, called a barrel arbor, with reduction wheels and gears. In later years, the weight, or rotor, would turn 360 degrees in both directions and could be wound in a back and forth motion.
The electronic watch was invented in 1952. It uses the same mechanical system as older watches, except that the human winding energy is replaced by the interaction of a coil and a magnet, known as a galvanometer drive, or an induction drive, where an electromagnet attracts a balance wheel containing soft magnetic filings.
A resonance drive uses a transistor-driven tuning fork to provide a frequency, or rapid vibration, which in turn moves a fine-toothed ratchet wheel. A battery powers the transistor. Thus are traditional moving parts eliminated. Time is at last friction-free, at least inside its miniature prisons.