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  • Catoptrica
  • Jane Alison (bio)


Old poet, a question: looking back on life now that it’s done, would you say that you lived in true space? Or did you inhabit a zone that was not quite dimensional, a vanishing point, maybe, between beholder and beheld? And what about time: did you feel the present, or erase it through perpetual reflection upon the past?

If you were the story of Narcissus, I think you might be neither the boy gazing into the pool nor his reflection gazing back. You might be the shine of water.


You told us once of a mirror hanging in the foyer of a large house, a mirror that a lovely boy glanced into one day. He was a delivery-boy for a tailor, you said, an amateur athlete on Sundays. What kind? Oh, a runner, maybe, or a swimmer. No: let’s say a boxer. Traces of bruise on the jaw, there, can see it shaded with slate grey, with caput mortuum violet. He stepped inside the house to deliver a parcel: a box of silk gloves, an expensive pen. Waiting for the receipt, he turned, and his eyes caught his eyes in the glass. Beauty! Startled, he translated beauty quickly to flaw, a blur of sweat on his upper lip to be blotted with a finger. Then the maid returned with his receipt, and he nodded, stepped out, was gone.

But the mirror. In its long dulling years affixed to the wall, of all the faces, bodies, flowers, and hats that had streamed over its glass, had it ever caught such beauty? (Narcissus asks the old trees standing around him and his pool: Have you ever seen sadder love?) The mirror held this boy’s face for only a flash, but after he had gone it burned still, reflecting still the sun. [End Page 123]


Old poet: old mirror.

Heron of Alexandria (your town) was first to understand the optics of reflection, rays of light striking a shining surface at the right angle, bouncing back to meet an eye.


In that poem you gave us a mirror, parcel, door, and street. Even though your point of view lay midway between illusory and tangible, your objects, poet, were solid. But objects seems a passive word, when these items of yours stirred drama. A table, bed, or chair; a handkerchief, a candle. Outside, a balcony or alley. A shop selling ties, wine, or smokes, as well as those shops’ glass windows.

Ordinary enough, yet these items held more potency for you, something painters of your day, just over the sea, might call the metafisica. An aura around daily objects: an air of the past, or the possible.


There lives today in Bologna a man named Parmigianni who creates art from smoke. He hangs huge canvases upon a wall and arranges things against them: long shelves of books, heavy drapes. Then he heaps up tires in the room and sets them alight. He hurries out, seals the place, waits. When the toxic pyre has flamed to ash, he airs the room, enters, and gingerly pulls from the canvas the objects he’d arranged—the books on their shelves, drapes hanging from a sooty rod. What’s left on the canvas: these objects’ ghostly shadows, in smoke. [End Page 124]

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Fig. 1.

“Untitled.” By Claudio Parmiggiani. 2008.

Courtesy of the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York.

You, too, work with past conflagration, although your medium is not smoke but visions, phantasia burning for years in your mind. A frantic session with a boy in a wine shop, for instance, or silent exchanges with one selling ties. Yet your phantasia are not only seen but sensations almost fully re-felt. Imagine! Feeling that pleasure again, although now you are alone, and the pleasure is borne only by thought. Imagine: feeling that past [End Page 125] pain. It is not really possible to re-experience pleasure or pain; they can be recollected abstractly but not, exactly, felt. Yet you conjure. Your eyes project images on the page, and within the lines live those moments still inside your skull: moments...


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pp. 123-131
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