Monday, June 30, 2008

The Poetics of Space

By a forgotten, meandering path through the Web, I arrived at a quote from The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher. It’s strange that I no longer remember this specific passage, because I was electrified by his words. I immediately ordered a copy of the book, which has proved to be a thrilling and enlightening read. I haven’t been reading this book in sequence. Instead, I open it at random, read a page or two, then shut the book and blink in awe. I need to replay the language, the observations and brilliant insights. I am slowly letting the words quench a thirst I didn’t know I had. I seem to siphon such large, rich drafts with my small sips. Bachelard’s wisdom expands inside my mind, flooding the recesses with something effervescent. I can feel my brain, buoyant, shifting to rebalance. Then I reopen the book, almost holding my breath in anticipation of sampling more revelatory lines. I can tell that I’m almost done with the book, because it’s almost entirely filled with Post-Its.

Some of the chapter titles will give you an idea of Bachelard’s creative style of thinking: “Intimate Immensity,” “Miniature,” “House and Universe,” “The Dialectics of Outside and Inside,” and “The Phenomenology of Roundness.” I was immediately absorbed by “Miniature,” since I love all things minuscule. (In my family, we share a hereditary condition my aunt refers to as tinyitis.) In my own poetry and hybrid writing, I can find myself entering the smallest possible worlds, sometimes shrinking to observe my surroundings. To me, details open expansive worlds. They are beautiful in themselves, but that pointed focus, that scratching at the surface, provides a door into a deeper, wider place. Just like the door of the poem opens elsewhere.

In discovering Bachelard, I was quite taken by reading essays that could describe my personal writing experiences, my observations about poetry. (He values poetry so highly that it seems to validate my calling.) He says “…the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world. The details of a thing can be the sign of a new world, which like all worlds, contains the attributes of greatness.” “Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness.” He states that the “man with the magnifying glass – quite simply – bars the every-day world. He is a fresh eye before a new object. The botanist’s magnifying glass is youth recaptured. It gives him back the enlarging gaze of a child.” (Do you remember Horton Hears a Who, by Dr. Seuss? Long ago I loved that children’s book, where a whole other complex world existed on a speck of dust.)

Today I was again wandering about in the “Miniature” chapter, when I came across Bachelard’s discussion of a “prose-poem” by Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, “The egg in the landscape.” (That title.) The excerpt from this piece felt wildly familiar to me. It describes looking through a flaw in a window, “one of these kernels that are like cysts in the glass, at times transparent little knucklebones, but more often, befogged or very vaguely translucent, and so long in shape that they make you think of the pupils of a cat’s eyes.” The “introduction of the nucleus into the landscape sufficed to make it look limp…Walls, rocks, tree-trunks, metal constructions, lost all rigidity in the area surrounding the mobile nucleus.” “The outside world in its entirety, is transformed into a milieu as malleable as could be desired, by the presence of this single, hard, piercing object, this veritable philosophical ovum which the slightest twitch of my face sets moving all through space.”

Bachelard adds to this: “every universe is concentrated in a nucleus, a spore, a dynamized center. And this center is powerful, because it is an imagined center.” “…we see the center that imagines; then we can read the landscape in the glass nucleus. We no longer look at it while looking through it. This nucleizing nucleus is a world in itself. The miniature deploys to the dimensions of a universe. Once more, large is contained in small.”

This struck me, not just because it’s a truth I also feel, but because I’ve recently been taking pictures using wavy, bubbled glass to create distorted worlds, hopefully creating an atmosphere of disorientation and surprise, and finding a little magic by peering in through those “glass nuclei.” I also like to imagine the dolls/people, looking back out, observing both their own world and the larger “real” world through those clear but warping lenses. Creating these miniature scenes, experimenting with light and reflections and atmosphere, are wonderful forms of play and discovery. It seems I always end up taking a picture of something different than what I first imagined. Led by the original inspiration, I let the idea evolve, taking its own mysterious course. (Additional meandering.) In turn, the photograph ends up telling me a new story, opening other doors, inviting poetry inside. This afternoon, energized again by reading Bachelard and the excerpts from de Mandiargues, I got out my camera and took some more photos using glass. The above picture is one of the results of the same continuing experiment.

Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) inhabited a different era, lived in a different country, and wrote in a different language. Even so, I feel a kinship bridging time and translation.

The Poetics of Space was originally published in French in 1958 by Presses Universitaires de France. The Orion Press, Inc. published the English version, translated by Maria Jolas, in 1964. Beacon Press published it in 1969, then added a foreword by John R. Stilgoe in 1994.

The above photo was taken this afternoon, 6/30/08. Click on image to enlarge. I posted two earlier watery-glass-world photos on the blog on May 7th and June 3rd, parts of which were later used on Mental Contagion, along with a few prose poems from Stirring the Mirror. You can view the previous blog posts by clicking on "Older Posts" at the bottom of the page and scrolling back in time.

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