The Fourth River

Essay: “Interlude on Darkness,” by Gary L. McDowell

By on July 19, 2016

From The Fourth River, issue 12

 

Nighttime as elegy. Nighttime as constraint. Being in the state of. Nighttime’s alter-ego: the Jazz Man. Croon, baby. Croon. Darkness after light is universal. Or before. We recognize the world, the jaws, the mandibular arc of daybreak.

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Imagine living in a city before electricity. Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, writes that, “…in 1830 what lights did exist [in New York] were intended only as beacons or guides rather than to illuminate the night.” Imagination hadn’t yet shortened the night. “The New York street lanterns burning whale oil were in 1761 merely ‘yellow specks engulfed by darkness,’ and even more than a hundred years later its gas lamps were still ‘faint as a row of invalid glow-worms.’”

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I’ve never been afraid of the dark. Things that go bump. I have fears, no doubt. Just not whats-in-the-closet, what’s-that-shadow-on-the-wall, that sound! what is that noise? Maybe failure. Or silence. But darkness and silence are two different sides of a very similar coin. Darkness: the lack of visual acuity, the distinct absence of optical cues. For which to maneuver. Silence: hypersensitive visual acuity, but with calmness, without clatter—precision, depth perception. You can hear what you see.

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the mandibular arc of daybreak…

And its opposite: the sun bowing, dissolving into silhouettes. Sloping. We call this time twilight. The gradual gathering of darkness has three stages. Civil: cars need headlights. Nautical: one can navigate via the stars. Astronomical: the faintest stars available in the sector of sky one sees are visible. In other words, that long blue moment.

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I’ve only been to New York City twice, but one of those times happened to be in the summer of 2010. The Flatiron district. Jim Campbell’s installation titled, “Scattered Light.” From two A-posts in Madison Square Park, Campbell hung a net of 2,000 LEDs that turned on or off when visitors walked by. The result was a set of ghostly, moving silhouettes capable of being seen from hundreds of feet away. I remember walking just closely enough to turn the lights on, then backing off until they switched dark again. Over and over. Really, I just wanted to get to the bookstore, but the scatter, the secret on-and-off, the way I felt, momentarily, crepuscular: my pupils expanded, my irises relaxed. The light flooded in.

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The same gene that makes your iris makes your frontal lobe, which controls personality.

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But we expect darkness. We crave it, have for millennia fought our fear of it, waited for its end to hunt, gather. Though in it, through it, we navigated, procreated, birthed. Our ancient core, our collective, or genetic memories from before we were even human, needs view of the night sky. We are connected to the nuances of our surroundings through their occasional absences; in other words, nocturnalization.

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As the retina ages, its proteins thicken, become, like an old windshield, flaky and cloudy, an accumulation of minuscule chips and dings—a veiling luminance. According to Bogard, these proteins “reduce the eye’s transparency as they scatter the light coming into the eye.” Basically, contrast. Surely you’ve driven at night, on a lonely road, stars visible above the horizon, maybe even the moon’s shadow cambered overhead, its playful half-circle etched into the empty passenger seat. Maybe a deer on the roadside. Oh, its eyes: pearly, translucent. Driving at night slows down time, or speeds up time. It depends on how many deer, how many marble-eyes. What I’m really trying to say: a shadow marks arrival and departure, the simultaneity of progression, a slowing down—of time and light and bend: gravity or the unknown arc of space-time. Something of a continuum. And then the speeding up at some burst of light—a flashlight, stroke of lightning, daybreak (even the slow burst of morning is still a burst), headlights—and we’re back to seeing shapes unhinged, less shapes, really, and more the things themselves.

 

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Gary McDowell is the author of five collections of poetry, including, most recently, Mysteries in a World that Thinks There Are None (Burnside Review Press, 2016), winner of the 2014 Burnside Review Press Book Award. His poems and essays have appeared in journals such as American Poetry Review, The Nation, and Gulf Coast.

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