by Austin MacRae
How best to hold a Master’s mastered light
that flickers deep in pearl, a milklit face?
His paintings stun: complex perspectives right,
well-framed, with every fold and thread in place.
Over and over, within this structured space,
he nails the tough proportions, deftly blocks
the naked eye’s distortions with such grace
of form that every stricture clicks and locks.
Like him, I shoot life through a dovetailed box,
a darkened room. Containment is the key
to breaking through. I watch what it unlocks
inside the mirror’s polished glass, and see
if like the great, meticulous Vermeer,
a blooming world pours through my pinhole, clear.
Camera obscura is the optical phenomenon that occurs when an image at the other side of a screen is projected through a small hole and appears as reversed and inverted on a surface opposite the opening. This discovery led to the development of photography. It is also an apt metaphor for how the world feels six months into the pandemic. I still see the world around me, but it appears smaller and flipped upside down. There is a wall between me and that world and much less light is shining in.
Yesterday, the young woman at the Trader Joe’s checkout jumped away from me as I approached her register and with fright in her voice commanded I stand exactly on the watermelon on the floor in front of the growing fortress-like plexi-glass barrier that separated us. I warily complied exactly as commanded, all pleasantries of human interaction obliterated by caution and safety, no smiles exchanged through our face masks, her eyes continuously downcast, a bit too intensely ringing up my modest purchase, never once looking at me, tangible her fear of being in the same space that I am in. I get it. I am not sure how I would handle a cashier job these days. I too would probably suffer from moments of the ebbie-jeebies that I was observing. It’s not that I had violated her six foot barrier, it was that it felt like she wanted a 30 foot barrier in that moment. I made a half-hearted attempt at fake pleasantries but it seemed to make the mood even more somber. It wasn’t her fault. In the end it made me feel like shopping at Trader Joe’s was my mistake. My local Cub Food let’s me check out all on own, maintaining this false notion we have that our social isolation is intact. It’s depressing that when I venture out for my one interaction with the world in a day and the world jumps back from me in alarm, runs away from me in fear, even if that destination has the best gluten-free bagels in town.
I long to get out of this box of COVID-19, end the cues in lines in front of everywhere I go, this social distancing which is another way of feeling social ostracism. I long to remove the masks and cut a giant hole in the universe and walk back into the world as I formerly knew it. Go to a baseball game, sit surrounded by strangers and drink a beer. I know it can’t be done, that world may never exist again. I fear that the future will be so completely foreign to the world that I had grown accustomed that everything will feel upside down forever and I will be the one much smaller than before, inverted. I feel myself moving along this new foreign, unpaved path, looking for hope, looking for ways to make my world big again, even if these days its only in the pages of a book or in the line of a poem, where an adventure may still await.
The Camera Obscura
Attuned at birth to joy and pain,
Dwells for a lifetime; even as one
Who in a closed tower sees the sun
Cast faint-hued shadows, dim or clear,
Upon the darkened disc: now near,
Now far, they flit; while he, within,
Surveys the world he may not win:
Whate’er he sees, he notes; for nought
Escapes the net of living thought;
And what he notes, he tells again
To last and build the brains of men.
Shades are we; and of shades we weave
A trifling pleasant make-believe;
Then pass into the shadowy night,
Where formless shades blindfold the light