Because insight

Yesterday at my annual eye exam, the optometrist told me to get myself a pair of reading glasses. Here they are–inevitable lenses through which I’ll have to gaze at poems and paintings from now on.

I’m not complaining. My blurry vision is a reminder to me — don’t take this for granted.

This is also a funny and wonderful reminder that I would be talking with students about image in poetry about now. The lens of looking at what I used to say in hindsight is a funny thing. And a bit blurry.

“Image” in creative work means the beautiful and frightening and strange and ugly and intriguing and heartwarming and funny and sad and astounding.

Of course, image is about wonder. A kind of awe at the light that we can see inside our minds. The way the poet or artist can create an experience of color, scent and touch with a single gesture.

On his first visit to Puerto Rico,
island of family folklore,
the fat boy wandered
from table to table
with his mouth open.
At every table, some great-aunt
would steer him with cool spotted hands
to a glass of Coca-Cola...

This opening to the poem “Coca-Cola and Coco Frío” by Martín Espada collates the images of family-get-together-overwhelm with boredom, hunger, curiosity. The specificity of “cool spotted hands” stands out, as does the fact that the fat boy” is steered with his mouth hanging open.

In the next stanza, the poet creates another image, to contrast with the first, but also linked with it, to act on that previous image.

Then, at a roadside stand off the beach, the fat boy
opened his mouth to coco frío, a coconut
chilled, then scalped by a machete
so that a straw could inhale the clear milk.
The boy tilted the green shell overhead
and drooled coconut milk down his chin;
suddenly Puerto Rico was not Coca-Cola
or Brooklyn, and neither was he...

The “cool spotted hands” have progressed to “chilled” and “scalped,” and “the fat boy” is just “the boy,” and he is inhaling, tilting, drooling– all these active images. So that’s a big part of poetry’s use of image: progression and superimposed sensory experience. There’s the unexpected color green of the tender coconut, after the implicit black color of cola. Wonder equals velocity of images times the difference between familiar and unfamiliar in the poem.

If you want to make… a poem

Since I’m not actually teaching, I can stop this discussion of image before getting into objective correlative and all that. But I want to invite you to wonder what image or images offer a direct entry for you personally to a feeling of fully belonging. In Espada’s poem, I think that image of “clear milk,” as a kind of oxymoron, acts as a catalyst for that emotion. For this writing prompt, try to start with your chosen image and let the poem unfold from there.

Our sense is always blurry, incomplete, imperfect. But poetry helps us extend to the inner realm of sense, which can help make a whole experience of a piece of insight. Of course, I’m writing this post with Puerto Rico in mind, as the suffering there in the wake of Hurricane Fiona may be on your minds, too. With light, we can do more.

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