1. Gaston Bachelard’s Solitary, Vertical Flame

Can I articulate a Poetics of Light without discussing light’s source? Let me turn to some texts that have helped me a bit in invigorating my imagination for light.

I first read Gaston Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire while at Temple University, where I pursued and abandoned a PhD in English Literature. Aside: if I’m ever asked to blog here again, I will likely dedicate my posts to WHY I ABANDONED BEING A PROFESSOR POET AND HOW I LIVE AND LAUGH AND LOVE EACH DAY.

Finding that book was the happy result of what happens when you allow yourself to drift among the stacks, letting your intuition guide you to a book. Its title was a mystery to me. Psychoanalysis? Okay, I understood that. Fire? Yes, I was familiar with it. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. What. Was. That.

I read it in one sitting while leaning back in a crusty office chair in one of the graduate student offices. I lost track of the day. I came to the final page, looked up into the acrid fluorescent lights. What the hell just happened to me.

Bachelard, Bachelard, Bachelard. He’s a phenomenologist of the imagination. He dives deeply into poetic images, examines how they move inside his mind, how they resurrect sensibilities buried in his imagination, then tracks what rises in response. I find him fascinating, a bit vexing, infinitely quotable:

If all that changes slowly may be explained by life, all that changes quickly is explained by fire. Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substance and offers itself with the warmth of love. Or it can go back down into the substance and hide there, latent and pent-up, like hate and vengeance. Among all phenomena, it is really the only one to which there be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell. It is gentleness and torture. It is cookery and it is apocalypse. (The Psychoanalysis of Fire)

I find him a useful portal into the ways language works upon us. He’s detailed, but also unapologetically intuitive. He writes firmly from his own sense of his imagination. His work is profoundly personal. I find it beautiful.

Through him, I also found license to reverie, to allow my imagination to yield itself to the elements in a way that is deeply personal and freeing. How much of my adult life is spent engaged in focused attention? The pleasures of reverie are in the ways the attention softens and recedes internally, how I find something surprising or formerly lost to me when I relax my concentration and allow myself the luxury of a wandering mind. I recall the ways I would doze as a kid in the back seat of the family station wagon from a short trip or errand, my mom at the wheel, and the dappled Virginia sunlight splashing my face. The red glow of the shifting light on my closed eyelids is ingrained in my sense of my childhood. I was relaxed, safe, I could daydream or delight in the sensual pleasure of the sun flickering on my cheeks, my shut eyes. I think that may be where this dream for light first washed into me.

He writes lovingly about the fires that were tended to in his childhood home, the ritual of lighting a lamp then extinguishing a light in domestic space. Fire is animated, it speaks to him: “The flame is a being lacking in substance, but for all that it is strong.” His ability to draw correlations between fire and flowers is breathtaking—run to his monograph, The Flame of a Candle, if only to read Chapter 4: Poetic Images of the Flame in Plant Life.

It’s in part because of my desire to try and speak with the light that I started setting my poems on fire. In my videopoem Permanent Day (2015), I wrote on Korean mulberry paper that I then set on fire the night of the solstice. The flames licked up the papery sheet, consuming it perfectly, lifting it as with a breath while it devoured. I felt a release, that the messages that were held in me were likewise converted perfectly into a light that the sky held, cleanly. I made a series of paper blossoms, Lost Blossom, that are intended to hold the lost-ness for you. You mediate on what you’ve lost while holding one of these blooms, then set it on fire when you are ready to let the lost-ness go. I further describe my interest in fire as a communicative transmission with light in an essay published by Sublevel, titled “Bone Sky,” about my efforts to understand the vast grasslands in Wyoming.  

Through Bachelard’s meditations, I have learned some things. One is that light has an axial imagination. The primary axis Bachelard writes on is vertical—how flames devour and want to rise. “The flame is so essentially vertical that it appears, for one who dreams about existence, to be stretched toward transcendence, toward an ethereal non-existence.” We’ve all probably observed how a flame wants to rise—how it translates the material it feeds from and converts it into color, heat, the air. Though he doesn’t describe this, light moves in waves that have perpendicular planes. There it is—that axial imagination again. How remarkable, that this element would move with such strict parameters. I don’t know what to make of it, but I am charmed. 

The more we are inundated with light, the less we know of it. Bachelard describes the transition from candlelight to lamplight to electric light as a recession in our connection with this active element; the former provides a more intimate, delicate flame, while the latter two cast a more powerful and consistent light. For Bachelard, this transformation in our consumption of light marks a distinctive shift in how the human imagination—bathed in this light—moves:

From the candle to the lamp there is for the flame something like a conquest of wisdom. The flame of a lamp, thanks to man’s ingenuity, is now disciplined. It is given over completely to its task, both simple and lofty, as a giver of light. (Flame of a Candle)

Where the flickering candle’s flame held a space for becoming, active dreaming or reverie, the solid light of the lamp becomes an occasion for memory and domestic space. This link to the flame recedes even further in the light of the electric bulb. For Bachelard, electric light “will never provoke in us the reveries of this living lamp which made light out of oil.” In a short discussion of Eugene Minkowski’s work thinking about electric lights from a phenomenological perspective, he identifies the small instant of time between flicking a switch for a light on or off. The ritual of creating light has diminished.

When lighting the old lamp, one always feared that a mistake or mishap could occur. The wick is not quite the same this evening as it was yesterday. Without proper attention, it will blacken. If the glass is not straight, the lamp will smoke. One always gains something by giving familiar objects the attentive friendship they deserve.

The “drama” of the instant between darkness and light has diminished with new lighting technologies. What do I know of creating light? What connections do I have with the myriad lights I can conjure at any instant? What pleasures in the ritual do I experience of summoning a light into being? The small darkness I experienced last year in a brief blackout one night reminded me how little I know of light. It speaks into me all the time, and I can hardly mouth its name.

What attentive friendship are we giving to the light in our lives?

2. Monstrous Light

One last thing that Bachelard instilled in me was a sensitivity to the fact that I live primarily under consistent, durable, electric lights. Conversely, I am rarely exposed to flickering or irregular sun and starlights. No wonder I am refreshed when I go out for a walk in the woods—the dappled light streaming down through the leaves overhead has a tempo and cadence of its own. I feel restored in that quality of light. It’s also why I have grown to love overcast days here, in intensely sunny Denver, where I now live. The light on those days has a different tensile strength. It softens into me.

The question of electric light’s consequences into us as a species, various ecosystems, our collective imagination, is a key consideration for me in my work moving forward. My intuition tells me that the consistency of artificial lights inundating us here has a far greater consequence in us and the environment than we can reckon. There are blue-light blocking lenses that folks with poor sleep habits are invited to wear at the end hours of the day so that they can sleep better and not have their brains activated by our computers and lights, etc. Our bodies are triggered—deeply—by exposure to light. Serotonin. Psychosis. Insomnia. Anxiety. Et ceteras!

(I think briefly of the film(s) Insomnia. How the perpetual daylight contributes to the exhaustion, anxiety, and tension. There is such a thing, I think, as too much light. And what is it doing to us all across species?)

I delved into the idea of light’s transformative power from a speculative poetics standpoint when I wrote Solar Maximum, which imagined how we might all be changed by the monstrous light cast off from a dying sun (just before it eats the Earth). I’ve shared about that in various interview contexts, like this one at Entropy.

Now, I want to investigate this question—of monstrous light—in the presence of our damaged planet and current technologies. I suspect the lights we created are shaping us.

I have copious notes and schemes for a grand work titled After the Holocene, dedicated to thinking about artificial light and its consequences. It would be a series of installations, several videos, a photo book and poetic essays. I call this work “After the Holocene” because I feel that we are literally writing a new epoch into being through creating artificial light. I know that the term “Anthropocene” has been gaining some popularity, but I feel that a term—one centered on light—better serves my interest. I haven’t coined it yet.

3. Prospectus: After the Holocene

After the Holocene is an investigation into the impact that human light technologies have had on the environment, other life-forms, and upon ourselves. After the Holocene asks, what are the subtle consequences of artificial light, and how is it transforming our world and ourselves in ways we are potentially under-estimating?

After the Holocene begins with an exploration into firelight, candlelight, and lamplight. I connect a global thirst for more consistent light sources to the 19th century near-holocaust of sperm whales for their oil to fuel lamps. A central conjecture of that installation is that human industrial progress, as epitomized by the Industrial Revolution, was sparked in part by humanity’s access to—and increasing appetite for—consistent, strong light. My study then turns to gaslights in public spaces, especially the street lamps of Paris and London, and how this changed social relations and urban imaginations. Next, I will investigate the filament bulb and LED light technologies, then conclude with an examination of spaces that are low/un-inhabited and relatively untouched by artificial light pollution, such as the far north and desert spaces. Each of these “movements” will culminate in an installation featuring found materials from those regions, incorporating my video art and a live performance.

After the Holocene requires a multi-disciplinary approach, captured in a series of 3-5 installations; each installation will center on a key environment that speaks to the history of artificial light and its impacts. The nature of this work requires scholarly level research into the fields of neurobiology, entomology, geology, anthropology, art history, physics, and chemistry. For example, I’d like to learn more about how animals, in particular insects such as moths (not to mention ourselves), are impacted by the sudden inundation of static, consistent light. There is strong research connecting our biorhythms to daylight and darkness, and I suspect that globally increasing rates of anxiety and depression can be linked to increasing tablet use/screen time in developed and developing nations.

Realizing After the Holocene also requires the study of native and contemporary dance forms related to key landscapes in the series, such as the sub-arctic circle and the heavily urbanized environments of London, New York, and Tokyo (or possibly Seoul, as I am an ethnic Korean), where I would also like to collect materials and capture performance footage for use in my installation design and video work. I have already begun extensive research into the history of artificial light and begun the first draft of writing for the first movement of this project.

Originally Published: December 18th, 2017

Korean American poet Sueyeun Juliette Lee grew up in Virginia. She earned a BA from the University of Virginia and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and studied for a PhD at Temple University. Lee is the author of That Gorgeous Feeling (2008), Underground National (2010), Solar Maximum (2015),...