By Cole Swensen
There’s a shadow on my hand. It’s where my eye fell. Not where my eye is falling; it’s the tense that makes it stain. That the tense of the verb has a physical effect. That the act of sight (so different from that of seeing) becomes this mark. And so how does the gaze sear—it’s its blandness. The gaze is always largely limpid. It’s often chosen as the translation for the French term le regard, but every translator laments its inadequacy; the latter is so much more engaged. And yet by its very blandness, by its very refusal of vigorous engagement, the gaze can wither much more than can le regard, can look upon and blight. Sight is fraught with danger. For others.
Thinking of a shadow—of something not in itself material, or only in the lightest sense—as itself casting a shadow. For instance, a flaw in glass, a slight glitch in a pane, which is in itself a rare case of completely transparent materiality, in which a flaw might well not be visible to direct observation, but when light passes through it, even that slight irregularity can get projected onto the surface beyond it—for instance, writing as the otherwise unrecognized irregularities in the world’s crystalline transparency, visible only when the sun is pouring through.
Thinking now, not about writing as shadow, but about what a writing of shadows might be—it’s such an appealing notion that it must exist, and must be something like writing that has a transparency to its materiality, a writing that both casts and is cast by. Plato’s Light is the shadow of God seems useful here in that it suggests that what casts a shadow need not itself be a material thing. Writing as the shadow of that which cannot be said, a light stain on the day, which darkens with the light.
Which makes one then think about shadows in language more generally. Of shadows that are cast, in an active sense, within the word. And within every word. For while we might easily recognize the shadows, the echoing and layered darknesses, within certain words, particularly nouns, and particularly charged ones, such as history, or river, or memory, or flame, we need to recognize that the shadows are equally thick, equally haunting, within words such as the and and and yes.
Shadows farther away
Someone pointed out to me the shadows of trees on a hillside some five or so miles away, how long and dense they were—it was late afternoon with its slanted light, and it was the fact that someone else pointed them out—the combination made me look more closely. And yet how can you look “more closely” at something five miles away? And yet the combination compressed space in a way that allowed me to be present, under those trees, California live oaks, on a hill just losing its green. Travel is always a pleasure, and traveling by shadow makes it all that much easier.
Poet, translator, and scholar Cole Swensen is the author of nineteen books of poetry, most recently Art in Time (Nightboat Books, 2021). A former Guggenheim Fellow and a recipient of the PEN USA Award in Translation, she translates poetry and art criticism from French and divides her time between France and the United States.
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