Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What Abraham Lincoln and W. S. Merwin Tried to Tell Me

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time thumbing through encyclopedias and dictionaries (which sounds very geeky, but it didn't seem that way then). We had my mother's gigantic two-volume dictionary from her childhood, with dried flowers in various pages; I never asked, and I wish I had, but I imagined those flowers were keepsakes, from dates and dinners of her teenage years, pressed into the page on which that specific flower type was defined.  Or maybe it's better to say I started to think, I wandered into the afterimages of my imagination. I can spend hours there.

After-image was what I meant to write about anyway. In one volume of the encyclopedias shelved near those dictionaries, there was an entry on light's after-effect on the eye, with an illustration: a Lincoln-head penny in half-red, half-green.  The caption explained that if you were to stare at the image long enough—and that was important, you had to give it time—then move your eyes elsewhere, Lincoln's profile would magically appear anywhere you looked, and it did: on the wall, above the childhood pattern of faded lilac; on the window, transparent above the hills that sloped to the country cemetery. His profile stirred and invaded, even under my eyelids when I closed them.  This is after-image: an image that continues, even though you are finished looking at the original, or as the OED puts it: "A visual sensation which remains after the stimulus that gave rise to it ceases." Something that remains in your vision, even if you thought you were finished with it. 

 Stare at the yellow stripe in the middle of the fish for 20 seconds. Then move your gaze to the fish bowl. There he swims!

This after-image concept is delicious, and why not? The original stimulus was gone, but the image follows me and starts to bleed into whatever else, to color, to correlate with and perhaps even belong to whatever I saw next. How long would it last? Even when the visual finally disappeared, the effect remained in my thinking mind. Lincoln's head was a part of the next moment's narrative, and that he had now influenced my vision even after the book was closed and back on the shelf—that was part of it too.  Was this maybe the first time I blurred categories, reflected on how something in my mind's eye could be projected into the material world? Did it fascinate me, this metaphor about resonance,  that suggested that the persistence of memory has to do with more than the sentimental heart?

What does and doesn't belong in a moment? What does it mean to carry such a gathering of ghost images with you? So the the brain fibers twitch; so the mind ripples out, and meaning accumulates, shifts, focuses in or enlarges. It's similar to the delightful way the visual thesaurus rolls into a spindly butterfly shape when you look up the word "imagine." If you then click on the word "think" in the "imagine" butterfly, you'll see a floating, hovering dandelion of possibilities. 

 I didn't know it at the time, but after-image, how everything hovers, was part of an excellent lesson of  W. S. Merwin's, who was visiting our (very lucky) writing class.  In what seemed like a casual moment, he said: sometimes it's best to just go like this, and turned his head, about two inches to his right. We looked.  I'm pretty sure I didn't understand what he meant.  I was concentrating then on that beautiful, beautiful Merwin profile.  But now I know.  It's somehow useful to recognize that I possess more stimuli receptors than I'm aware of, and that I can't control everything, that the correspondences, the linkages, can surprise. The activity of writing may be a walk into the world of after-images, if you are open to the invitation. The stimulus is not always directly in front of you, but hovering, over there.

after-image of fish and bowl via Eric Chudler's Sight/Vision.

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