The Invention of Streetlights

By Cole Swensen b. 1955 Cole Swensen
             noctes illustratas
             (the night has houses)
                                                      and the shadow of the fabulous
                                          broken into handfuls—these
can be placed at regular intervals,
                                                         candles
walking down the streets at times eclipsed by trees.
 

 
 

 
 
 
 
 
Certain cells, it’s said, can generate light on their own.
 
There are organisms that could fit on the head of a pin
and light entire rooms.
 
Throughout the Middle Ages, you could hire a man
on any corner with a torch to light you home
 
                                                                were lamps made of horn
and from above a loom of moving flares, we watched
Notre Dame seem small.
Now the streets and stand still.
 
By 1890, it took a pound of powdered magnesium
to photograph a midnight ball.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
While as early as 50 BCE, riotous soldiers leaving a Roman bath
sliced through the ropes that hung the lamps from tree to tree
                                             and aloft us this
                                             new and larger room
Flambeaux the arboreal
                                             was the wife of Julius Caesar
                in whose streets
                in which a single step could be heard.
We opened all our windows
and looked out on a listening world laced here and there with points of light,
                                             Notre Dame of the Unfinished Sky,
oil slicks burning on the river; someone down on the corner
striking a match to read by.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Some claim Paris was the first modern city to light its streets.
        The inhabitants were ordered
        in 1524 to place a taper in every window in the dark there were 912 streets
                                walked into this arc until by stars
                                makes steps sharp, you are
                 and are not alone
by public decree
October 1558: the lanterns were similar to those used in mines:
“Once
we were kings”
                                and down into the spiral of our riches
still reign: falots or great vases of pitch lit
at the crossroads
                  —and thus were we followed
                                                        through a city of thieves—which,
but a few weeks later, were replaced by chandeliers.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
While others claim all London was alight by 1414.
                                There it was worded:
Out of every window, come a wrist with a lanthorn
                                                                                               and were told         
                                                                                               hold it there
                                       and be on time
and not before
and watched below
the faces lit, and watched the faces pass.         And turned back in
(the face goes on) and watched the lights go out.
Here the numbers are instructive:
                               In the early 18th century, London hung some 15,000 lamps.
And now we find (1786) they’ve turned to crystal, placed precisely,
each its own distance, small in islands, large in the time it would take to run.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 




                                             And Venice started in 1687 with a bell
 
                                             upon the hearing of which, we all in unison
exit,
match in hand, and together strike them against an upper tooth and touch
the tiny flame to anything, and when times get rough (crime up, etc.) all we
have to do is throw oil out upon the canals to make the lighting uncommonly
extensive. Sometimes we do it just to shock the rest of Europe, and at other
times because we find it beautiful.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
Says Libanius
                     Night differs us
                                          Without us
                                           noctes illustratas
                                                    Though in time of public grief
when the streets were left unlit, on we went, just
dark marks in the markets and voices in the cafes, in the crowded squares,
a single touch, the living, a lantern
                                 swinging above the door any time a child is born, be it
Antioch, Syria, or Edessa—
and then there were the festivals,
                             the festum encaeniorum, and others in which
                             they call idolatrous, these torches
                                                                          half a city wide
                                                                                              be your houses.

Cole Swensen, “The Invention of Streetlight” from Goest. Copyright © 2004 by Cole Swensen. Reprinted by permission of Alice James Books.

Source: Goest (Alice James Books, 2004)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Cole Swensen b. 1955

Subjects Arts & Sciences, Architecture & Design, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Cities & Urban Life

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Biography

Poet Cole Swensen was born and raised near San Francisco, and has since lived in Santa Cruz, California, London, England, Paris, France, and Denver, Colorado, working as a translator, editor, copywriter, and teacher. She began teaching at an alternative high school while in her early twenties and has since taught in community colleges and universities. She began teaching full-time at the University of Denver in 1996 and is the . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Architecture & Design, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Cities & Urban Life

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.