A Lesson in Iridescence
Iíve just moved. Packing, I felt such anxiety about each book as I put it away: wonít I, I thought, want Studs Terkelís Working soon? I told myself, about each one, that I could put it away for one week. Now itís been two, and Iíve just unearthed the books I was reading when I left, and they all seem wrong. I want to ransack the hurt and ragged shelves for new books to set on the coffee table -- but what do I want to read? I spy the pale salmon spine of Elizabeth Bishopís collected poems -- no, her order would put my house to shame. The doorstop of Anne Carsonís Nox has landed on a bedside table -- no, too many boxes are open already.
Iím thinking of this passage from Elizabeth Hardwickís Sleepless Nights:
Dearest M.: Here I am back in New York, on 67th Street in a high, steep place with long, dirty windows. In the late afternoon, in the gloom of the winter sky, I sometimes imagine it is Edinburgh in the nineties. I have never been to Edinburgh, but I like cities of reasonable size, provincial capitals. Still it is definitely New York here, underfoot and overhead. The passage from Boston was not easy. Not unlike a crossing of the ocean, or of the country itself -- all your things to be dragged over the mountains. I can say that the trestle table and the highboy were ill-prepared for the sudden exile, the change of government as it was in a way for me. Well, fumed oak stands in the corner, bottles and ice bucket on top. Five of the Naval Academy plates are broken. The clocks have had their terminal stroke and will never again know life. The old bureaus stand fixed, humiliated, chipped.
And I have no naval academy plates, and no highboys, but I put her language on nonetheless, like a yellow satin robe from a secondhand store.
The first night I was here I reached into a bag of tools and found two stray books: Jane Eyre and Nabokovís Lectures on Literature. I chose the latter and a glass of wine (from those that arrived unbroken), and opened to the lecture on Mansfield Park, Jane Austenís little-loved longest novel. I was reading along, happy to be in good company, when I read something I disagreed with (nothing much -- Nabokovís idea of what ďthe Roman emperors as low as SeverusĒ means). I noticed there was some writing along the side: my fatherís annotation, disagreeing with the same passage.
From Nabokov today: ďa lesson in iridescence.Ē
I donít intentionally collect anything, but every now and then I buy old photos in thrift stores -- photos that today I find in a box of unrelated papers. The woman in the woods, her hair illumined, arms crossed over her thin chest, thatís heartís-needle and natural, but another has always puzzled me -- two people standing at the edge of a field, close together. The figure in back is easy enough to read: a woman in a long fur coat, smiling, turning her head but not her eyes to listen to the other who stands in front, who has half-turned to speak to her. The one in front is I suppose a woman, a little oddly dressed, but Iíve also thought it might be a man, suited up for some historical pageant: he or she wears a white blouse, a long layered skirt, a fur-trimmed coat, and what looks like a tricorn hat. Thereís mischief in their poses, the way they incline to each other, the way their mouths move, or would move if they werenít caught and still. I think they love each other, or loved. The photo is old enough that they must both be dead now, and it carries no identification on the back.
I also have an unusual hat someone could photograph me in, standing at the edge of a field, autumn or early spring. Itís a beaver top hat, fetching in Fosse fashion, but authentic, stiff, heavy. Because it fits me, my husband gave it to me when I left -- just now, that is. The top hat came from a packrat woman who, not caring for her heirs, left her voluminous possessions to my husbandís mother, who was kind to her. The woman had, from the usual perspective, a stunted life. I always thought her name might be to blame. She was called Beryl, like the gemstone, but this being Minnesota, this woman named for a gem went through life as ďBurl.Ē
Pity the woman trapped in an iridescent name no one around her knows how to say.
What is a lesson in iridescence? Nabokov throws off this phrase in reference to the peacocks poor Charles Bovary sees when he first goes to the farm where he will meet his doomed and deadly Emma. As Nabokov emphasizes, Charles is a true soul; he is the one who will really love Emma, who will (all but unknown to her) feel for her the romantic passion she craves. So itís not Emma, whose sentimental education the novel follows, who takes the lesson; itís Charles, or the reader, or both. And where does it take him or us? Down the rabbit hole of a lost love. This is not a lesson a wise man signs up for.
Cleaning out my grandmotherís things after she died, I came across a little china box. I lifted the lid, thinking pennies or string, but it was full of butterfly wings.
I go to the library to look up iridescence in the image file. I pull open the drawer marked Interiors: Living Rooms: 1955-59 -- Islamic Americans. But there is no iridescence here; itís lost between Ireland and Iron and Steel. I pull some images from the latter. The first is lurid -- a factory, seemingly mid-explosion, hell-colors and muscular men pulling this way and that among massive machines. The image is marked Fortune í44; thereís no indication what it might have once illustrated. Why, I wonder, is it filed here? Why not under disaster?
Another image in the same file: an old grayscale photo of a factory with only the fires, faces, bricks a little rosy -- the machines too, I notice, as if to indicate how even steel smolders under labor, over time. Itís as if the photo-tinterís taken notice of everything that will be used up.
Some of the images are repeated -- clipped from the same sources by different hands. Who clipped these? People with an eye to the general welfare, I suppose, people who did not want anything to go to waste. People like my grandmother, who used to insist that various public bodies would be grateful to receive the things sheíd hoarded over her life -- images, picture frames, figurines, all valuable, all worth the effort of saving. No use telling her the library doesnít accept images for the vertical file anymore.
Iridescence comes from the Latin iris, rainbow. Things that iridesce seem to change color as angle of vision changes; they are things we pick up and turn from side to side in our hands, butterfly wings, feathers, mother of pearl, the gloriously unlucky opal I so wanted for my wedding ring (and didnít take). We look into them to see what more will happen.
File under disaster: the bridge collapses, the trainwrecks. Floods on the lower Mississippi. Berylís bulging house. This bookcase, already listing, double-piled. The whirlwind, the domestic catastrophe. File under disaster.
About the image file: I like the idea of assembling a world this way, with an image that means iron and steel, an image that means grandmother, an image that means home. Let the things that cannot be pictured melt away, leaving the concrete world behind -- but an idiosyncratic concrete world, my train station, my windswept beach, my map of the world. These are my little possessions, which I take with me wherever I go, which I bring out to remind myself of who I am.
But something comes to disrupt this made order, to break my categories.
First snow of the season today. This being Minnesota, this first snow is no light matter but a foretaste of that white desolation, the palace emptiness builds for us all. Pulling out of the college parking lot, I see that wind is blowing the lighter snow in ripples across the roadway. The phenomenon will be familiar to all northern drivers -- but if you really look, when conditions are right, the patterns can be entirely mesmerizing, curls and scrolls unfurling as if in surf. Once, on a long winter drive, I was so drawn into them that I feared I would drive off the road; I had to wrench my eyes away. Today, when I see them, I think oh god, oh god. There it is: the glitter of the other world.
Those who are not willing to take a lesson in iridescence, I suppose, will never be lost.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
New York Review Books
Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov