Aristotle’s Lantern

When perspective is new who knows where we tend.
Piero’s St. Mary Magdalen is realization
of purposeful form, a specimen.

The good work done, the halo in place
the act of grace subsumed in the state
“the curves in the regular bodies”

her hair remains bedraggled with oil
its emptied decanter transparently glass
her luminous weight, human

as any woman’s who hurries, warm from her bath
in candlelight across the room, to bed, a lover.
“Beauteous night, O night of love, smile at our excesses,”

sings the whore in the dwarf’s arms, departing…
Hoffman’s captive soul in tow
a rival’s blood on his hands
the gondola’s lone lamp fumbling
with the architecture, the stupified water.

Cry him a river. I pinned my hope early
on Ping the duck, who, late and afraid
of the swishing stick, just punishment,
hid in the reeds as his family waddled
onto the junk on the yellow Yangze, at sunset.

Alone, disconsolate, he saw them go
but found them again by luck, downstream!
Though a man might have his balls chewed off
by another, at a guard’s whim, in Bosnia.

At length, at last, past the fish-count shack
where the forest opens west to release us
past unnatural history, past the little wheeze
at the bottom of your breathing: salt-water.
And perhaps a crevice concealing
the urchin aria

named for the great teacher: orchestration
of forty skeletal pieces meshed
in muscle or ligament

for the synchronous movement
of five teeth, ever-growing, ever-ground
down on the rock, reaping algae. Appetite

insistent, blind to even the aqueous light,
couldn’t be that virtuous striving, aspirant
form within the form: active soulful happiness.

Fresco, melody, story, faith.
A theory of evolution.

O the taste, the pleasure
as we lick and kiss each other there
grooming the metaphysics.

Twenty-three hundred years and counting.
The same observable mouth-parts, apparatus.

Questions and Answers

Questions & Answers

What inspired “Aristotle’s Lantern”?

I was intrigued by the very classy name, “Aristotle’s Lantern,” for the mouth part apparatus of sea urchins, which I happened upon doing general reading/research for a book length poem sequence (Water Stair, Oolichan Books 2000) on rivers and estuaries. The “lantern” element associated with antiquity’s great teacher recalled the 19th century notion of the lamp of learning/civilization, leading my thought to the renaissance, Romanticism, natural history, childhood reading and contemporary ideas, especially around evolution. Our cultural evolution contrasted with the elegant apparatus sea urchins continue to utilize in their brutally basic scraping of algae from rock gave me the poem’s direction and energy.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Aristotle’s Lantern”?

Too many and too nuanced to detail but there are striking examples in the poem of how I build metaphor (or how it evolves, is woven into the fabric of imaginative thought). Phrases like “urchin aria” and “orchestration/ of forty skeletal pieces meshed/” are to some extent straightforward, if colourful, description but they also cross-reference significant elements of the poem’s theme; sea urchins to the opera, Tales of Hoffman; culture to biologically observable physical characteristics.

A successful poem’s argument/idea is inseparable from its imagery; it is whole in the way an organism is alive. But is also artifact, specimen—perpetually re-enacting the paradox and irony of human existence.

This poem “Aristotle’s Lantern” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 154 (Autumn 1997): 72-73.

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