The Beautiful Glimpsed in Unexpected Places

People give me a strange look sometimes when I tell them that I used to be a computer games programmer.  The idea that a poet might have a technical background seems odd at first — in large measure because we’ve been brought up to believe that there is a great divide between the sciences and the creative arts.  And yet some of the most impassioned and eloquent discussions of beauty and aesthetics have originated in the sciences.  Before science was science, it was natural philosophy — the domain of free thinkers and those who looked with wonder and curiosity at the natural world.  Through the Romantic period and the Victorian age, it was not only possible, but highly probable to find scientists who were artists, poets, novelists, and musicians.  They moved in similar circles and engaged in the same conversations. The world was full of mysteries to be unraveled, messages from Nature or an unseen Maker.  There were patterns and codes, sympathies and congruences.  Everything had a name or number, an order, a place in the larger universe and cosmology.

Even today some of this sense of wonder remains.  Mathematicians revel in the elegance of certain proofs and solutions.  Physicists take delight in moments of infinite complexity and surprising synchronicity.  Even programmers can find pleasure in their work – in the simple solution to the seemingly intractable problem or the ways in which a piece of code can serve many purposes.   There are moments too when what one has learned in one world suddenly has significance in another.  Even as we appropriate language and terms from our everyday speech to use as jargon in another field, strange parallels emerge – and unexpected beauty arises.

I think beauty lies in many places.  We find things certain elements of order beautiful.  An arrangement (or disarrangement) can be evocative.  The interplay of colors and lines.  The ways in which the expected yields to unexpected.  The “I did not see that coming, but now I cannot imagine it otherwise” moment.  Here, the land looms suddenly.  A shadow meets another shadow.  Light slips through something rusted and broken.  Things forgotten, unearthed.  Textures.  It is hard say what it is exactly.  Something shifts in memory.  Awakens.  And one day you look at what was familiar and realize it is a thing of incredible worth.  Even a word.  Even a computer programming term.


—a special type of variable that holds the address of another variable

Not the thing itself, but a hand gesturing to where it lies in memory,
like when we say Hopper and mean any room viewed from without,

any couple made distant by sulfur light and shadow, the angled turn
of bodies which do not to come face to face, but lean awkwardly on tables,

across keys, at the unopened window where night bends like a palm
under the weight of all that is impossible to touch. A numbered stall

out in the parking lot, in the lower levels of the tower by our building,
between the lines at the side of the road—and what they imply, this insistence

on fire and exhaust, how smoke rises to our lips. Even now, ash speaks to ash,
to the names of my father and his father, to what remains in the wind

and on the waves for days after an eruption, to the week we hid in our homes
after the fall of New York, the trees which break the frosted earth

awash in the color of salt, our hands caught in a motion between lapwing and sorrow,
between iron vein and needle, between want and want.

First published in diode vol. 2, issue 3.

4 responses to “The Beautiful Glimpsed in Unexpected Places”

  1. lane says:

    lapwing song:

    iron vein and needle?

    heroin . . . (?)

    it feels awkward breaking this silence. making prose after poetry. but i really liked the evocation of Hopper and linking that to Lower Manhattan and those events, “the fall of New York” very stylish. But then lapwing, a european bird, and then addiction.

    I know I know I know, everyone is a FUCKIN” Critic! sorry Neil, but I don’t quite get the ending.

    I really like it otherwise. Have you ever read Mark Strand’s essay on Hopper?

  2. swells says:

    I really like the integration of short lines into your prose.

    Is the “lapwing”/”sorrow” connection the literal movement of hands fluttering a little out of control in grief? but then a poet, like a magician, probably shouldn’t tell.

  3. lane says:

    2. god what a romantic thing to say . . .

    come on magic man, we’re all artists around here, tell us! tell us!

  4. Natasha says:

    Sorry, Dave, coming in too late on this one. I just saw it, can’t believe I missed it!

    Neil, it’s amazing! Your poem reminds me of “The Idea” by M. Strand. But the depth of yours is like perchlorate for the mind. In the beginning, with the fall of “I am,” “New York falls”, the entire physical world falters, crumbles into a permanent staccato, but time puts the most stubborn puzzle pieces in place; “insistence” dissipates logic. “Hopper” cannot be found in “a motion between lapwing and sorrow, between iron vein and needle, between want and want,” but rather in stillness, like a leaf between two pieces of glass. Perhaps not even “Hopper,” but Mount Meru, the mythical home of Hindu Gods, the place, which reaches hell with its roots and heaven with its peak (so the legend conveys). In the experience of the resplendent throe, “the sorrow” molds into a painting, “the needle” molds into an iron stature, and “want and want” sound like the perfect unison, and, suddenly, you find yourself writing the most magnificent and complicated harmonies – beauty and ugliness, ugliness and beauty…and that’s “The Idea.”