“Effort lay in us / before religions,” writes Lorine Niedecker in “Paean to Place,” “at pond bottom / All things move toward / the light.” Yes, we think amid the nine-to-five, out-of-our-minds grind, of course we started striving. But “effort,” here, “lay” in us, which is a rather passive verb for such a strenuous noun—why?Perhaps because the effort is spiritual, not physical—an internal, rather than an external, exertion. Except Niedecker identifies this effort prior to our hammered-out systems of meaning-making. This is not the usual encouragement to align all the doctrinal facets of our metaphysical Rubik’s cubes.
This stanza is a creation narrative. And while the pond is a nod to the poet’s own marshy origins, the image ripples, too, with Genesis—the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. Long before the scramble for leaf-clothes or the craftwork of self-concealment, something else in us inched, so instinctively as to be passively, towards brightness.
To be, then, is to approach—All things move toward. In Niedecker’s cosmogony, there is a built-in anticipation of revelatory encounter. Despite the detonations that explode even the most carefully-built lives, if we exist, so does some visceral wriggle. In the beginning (Niedecker’s beginning, all the beginnings), there is this wanting to be in relief.
The fifteenth issue of Letters wonders at the light and the visibility it makes possible—how we ache for and from it, and what happens when we meet or are met by it. Because ponds, after all, are relatively shallow; sunshine takes the plunge and is caught up. While the universe, with its tumultuous millennia and its infinite, ever-growing expanse of space, seems to be more than an aquatic brevity. Even one individual human life (what with all those births and deaths, the moving and staying-put, the hard-won achievements and the mindless years, those heartaches, those ecstasies) is less a pond and more some roiling, cosmic ocean whose floor far exceeds solar reach.
Here, where fires rip through and ravage an entire island, where politicians form functional gangs to overthrow elections, where a friend recalls that time his brother’s panic over the price of insulin gave that same brother a heart attack. Oh this hazy here—where a hoped-for marriage dissolves in a vacuum of neglect, where that friendship formed with the best of intentions and attentions shatters from hurt, where those we love can die the most tragic of deaths, so sudden and unexpected and gratuitous. Virginia Woolf, The Waves: “There is agitation and trouble here. There is gloom. The light is fitful.”
This time-havocked wreck of a world seems to stifle whatever beam blazes into it, resonating less with Niedecker’s take on reality and more with that Gospel author’s account of things—the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. What to do, then, with these dissimilar narrative arcs—one in which we are shine-inclined creatures, straining and craning after various glimmerings, and the other in which we shrink from, and even shirk, the brilliance?
Even the most well-intentioned of us become skittish when faced with a light that can both sear and soothe. Perhaps because we really do want to name our evils as goods for the simple sake of a power-grab. But, assuming we aren’t all malevolent masterminds, it seems there is another element to our fear of appearing. Sure, a ray of truth—in overtaking us—might free you and I from the intricate and hitherto-insurmountable narrative trappings we’ve fortified our inevitably-false lives with, but what if that same beam reduces us to that secret sin or shame? What if the telling of one truth constructs another lie? What if, precisely in the moment we are found, we are once again, and utterly, lost? Revelation is not always, after all, consolation.
Or is it? “Maybe the flickering shells out a magic / that will spell this man over millennia / back to a perfect reconstitution in light” (A.R. Ammons, “Walking About in the Evening”). The Gospel, again—while you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light. To be offspring of revelation—born out again and again by the brief, but recurring, brilliance.
Light, in this passage, anticipates its own disappearance, and seems to connect that transience to its salvific work. Because the fitfulness of light is, in part, what allows the glow to work. To catch the runaway, the flash must be unexpected and surprising, difficult to predict, not maneuverable or manipulatable—the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
The spirit of truth flits like some furious, fugitive spark, impossibly bright and durable. We cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes, only that it darts through this whirl of a world-wound, from cranny to crevice, surviving despite all sorts of errors and horrors. Yes, there are pains that remain—that, it seems, must remain if we are to recognize our dim predicament. But there is a radiance, too, that is ineradicable; occasionally, it breaks over us.
“This world is straw: straw mother, father, friend,
Per omnia saecula saeculorum, amen.
But Lord! It shines, it shines like light, today.”
— from “Sarah’s Christening Day” by Jean Valentine
What to do with this particle wave? This sight-singeing beam or illuminating ray? This sunglow, this ice glint? “What logos lights the filament of time, / Carbon arc fusing birth-stone to head-stone?” (Jean Valentine, “Afterbirth”).
Physicists classify lights sources according to their degree of uniformity. Incoherent light sources operate at variable frequencies, their waves out of phase with each other. The sun is one such source, scattering its photons at different rates, in different ways.
Brightness falls and falls away and we move through it. We live in incoherent light.
It is no small thing, really, to learn to love each uncovering. Lines from William Bronk’s “Emptying Out”:
“Winter now and light
comes late and it is celebrant
and just the light is enough, the idea of light,
the waking naked to it.”
Given my recent graduation from Yale Divinity, this is my last issue as the Managing Editor of Letters (you could probably tell from how long this editorial is). I’m grateful for the couple of years I’ve spent poring over submissions—for all the brightness and brilliance I’ve encountered. I hope the poems, stories, art pieces, and conversations that comprise this publication make the world—and the goodness that should be—more apparent to you. I hope something in this issue prepares you for light.
Alexandra Marie Green
Luke Stringer, editor
Sharon Weightman Hoffmann
Visual Art Editor
Fiction & Non-Fiction
Nicolette Polek, editor
Issue 15 cover photo by Brinton Farrand.
Special thanks to Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music for making this publication possible.
Read more about LETTERS here.