Wednesday, December 8, 2010


or Putting the Shine Back On

You never realize just how cluttered an urban landscape is until you try to photograph a sunset, and then you become all too aware of the busy-ness you have been mentally photoshopping out of your vision.  Cameras aren't nearly as adaptable as the human psyche.  The lens will show you exactly which objects are in front of it with painful clarity; it's up to you to get the camera to lie about the ones you don't like as best you can.

Thinking with mild annoyance about rooftops and poles and wires and such has reminded me of one of the poems in Paul Verlaine's La Bonne Chanson (The Good Song).  The poem's narrator is riding in a noisy, coal-burning train and looking out at the landscape,
where thin telegraph poles sag, their wires having the strange allure of a flourish of the pen.

I can see the mysterious appeal of a bit of swirling calligraphy—a line of Spencerian script with curls and sweeps tailing the capital letters, the kind of thing that makes you aware of appearance rather than meaning, of the process of writing rather than what the writing says.  It makes you see penmanship with new eyes, at least for a while. 

Verlaine published La Bonne Chanson in 1870, several decades after the invention of the telegraph, but not long after the laying of the transatlantic cable.  Telegraphic technology was not so old as to have acquired a patina, but the shine, perhaps, had worn off.  In this poem Verlaine doesn't focus at all on the marvels of long-distance communication.  Instead he looks at the apparatus that makes it possible and weighs it purely in terms of its visual effect.  The poem's narrator, looking through the lens of the train car window, seems to be newly aware of the poles' rhythmic spacing, the black curve of wire between them.

Add an extra 140 years, and I think we can safely say that the shine has faded altogether from poles-and-wires technology.  I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't even know whether these are power or telephone lines; they're just a part of the landscape that I take for granted and ignore, except when they interfere with a sunset.   The lines in the newer part of the neighborhood are buried, but for the most part, these older lines are just as invisible to awareness as if they were.

That's kind of disconcerting.   I mean, they're big.  And kind of important.   And yet, they're so ubiquitous that they fade out of the line of sight altogether until some kind of focal lens lets them be seen afresh.  That's one reason I enjoy cameras so much—they are like Verlaine's train window, putting you at a distance from the familiar and making you see it in a new way.  They put some of the shine back on the things you've taken for granted for a lifetime.

Which doesn't mean I still won't do my best to get the camera to lie about the bits I don't like.


  1. I enjoy the thought of the sky like calligraphy. How beautiful your photos and writing are! I selectively chose not to see both telephone poles and power lines by our home, as we are surrounded and by the highest and largest of power lines, unfortunately. :)

  2. Thank you, Jan Lyn! We've had some incredible sunsets lately--the winter ones are always the most vivid. The modern conveniences are really wonderful--I wouldn't want to go without them--but they do ask us to overlook a lot... :)