I went to our local maritime museum the other day which is adjacent to the Coast Guard station and the water treatment facility and the swimming beach and other riparian entertainments (I know, “riparian” more often refers to a river bank than to a lakeshore, but it can refer to any body of water, and it’s one of my favorite words and I hardly ever get to use it). The museum features substantial exhibits on shipwrecks, including the Edmund Fitzgerald which still haunts the memories of many local residents, as well as on weather reporting out on the water and shore life. What I remember most, however, is the exhibit on WWII, because the central piece of equipment in that room was a submarine periscope. So for the first time in my life, I looked through a true periscope, and lo, I really could see out onto the beach and all along the shore. I could see who was playing Frisbee and which cars were entering and exiting the city, and how many sailboats were leaving the harbor. I felt voyeuristic—but isn’t every writer deep down a bit of a voyeur?
I’ve watched tv, and so I knew that submarines were equipped with periscopes, and I’d seen representations of a sailor’s periscopic view. Still, I was surprised to see what I knew but did not believe would be there. The experience reminded me of the first time I looked at the moon through a telescope. I kept turning the lens all over the black sky, observing lots of darkness, until somehow I pointed the telescope in the right direction and saw all those craters, looking as if they were close by.
I’m told often that what you see depends on where you stand, and that’s certainly true. But it also depends on how you look—through a periscope, a telescope, a microscope, binoculars, bifocals, or cataracts. I suspect I’m not alone in noticing that I focus more attentively when I’m looking through a magnifying glass or other device than when I’m relying on my own ordinary eyes. Magnified sufficiently, anything ordinary becomes extraordinary—as this microscopic photograph of sand illustrates. Access to visions like this still feels like magic to me—they can’t possibly be true, and yet they are.
There’s a difference.
Looking through a telescope or microscope, I often feel awe. All that complex life, or at least creation, contributing minute by minute to the conservation of the world—and most of the time, it’s absolutely invisible to human eyes. Poets like Pattiann Rogers observe nature this closely; when I read her poems, I take nearly as much pleasure from learning about the processes of biology and astronomy as I do from her language, as in this stanza from “The Rites of Passage” in her first book, The Expectations of Light:
At 77 degrees the single cell cleaves in 90 minutes,
Then cleaves again and in five hours forms the hollow
Ball of the blastula. In the dark, 18 hours later,
Even as a shuffle in the grass moves the shadows
On the shore and the stripes of the moon on the sand
Disappear and the sounds of the heron jerk
Across the lake, the growing blastula turns itself
Inside out unassisted and becomes a gut.
Reading her work for the first time set me on a new path with my own, away from the (apparently) autobiographical, written often as an heir to the Romantics and the centrality of the “I.” I turned further outward, as have many contemporary poets who explore national history, as Martha Collins does in Admit One or Claudia Rankine does in Citizen, or catastrophic events, as Nicole Cooley does in Breach, without entirely abandoning the personal and the internal.
When I looked through a periscope, though, I felt surprise but also a twinge of guilt, as if I weren’t observing but monitoring, seeing without being seen. It’s different than sitting in a coffee shop, mildly eavesdropping, as we writers (and, let’s admit it, everyone else) occasionally do. Writers can claim that such behavior is not nosiness but research. And anyone having a conversation in a coffee shop ought to realize that they’re likely to be overheard—there’s no, as lawyers say, expectation of privacy.
Writing this, I’ve realized that in “spying,” so to speak, through a periscope, I never lost track of myself. I remained too aware of my qualms of something like dishonesty. In looking through a microscope or telescope, or in engaging intently with nature or art through other means, I do lose track of myself. And that loss, that freedom from the self, is what leads me back to art, to writing, to poetry.