[This piece appeared in January 2009 on the blog site of The Kenyon Review. I want to repeat it here partly in the interest of completeness and partly to help contextualize some upcoming material.]
Perfect 20/20 vision will not be enough to pass an eye test given to military pilots. It also involves “contrast sensitivity.”One must be able, for example, to see a white cat walking in the snow.
–”Field of Vision,” http://www.innerbody.com/anim/vision.html
Nothing! No oil
For the eye, nothing to pour
On those waters or flames.
–Robert Lowell, “Tooth and Eye”
The light was almost unbearable.
“Look right,” said Dr. de Souza. ”Look up. Look down.” He was examining my left eye with what I can only describe as an illuminated lens. His technician had spent 45 minutes taking detailed digital photographs of my retina–through layer after layer of retinal tissue, I was told–but if Dr. de Souza had made any use of those photographs, I never saw it. My impression is that, though Dr. de Souza works in a clinic that possesses all manner of marvelous devices, he prefers to trust himself instead of the machinery. Throughout my encounter with him, I was impressed by his aura of quiet authority and confidence, which was the very opposite of off-putting. I trusted this neat, semi-handsome, self-possessed man, and I was glad to trust him.
“Look left,” said Dr. de Souza.
“I can’t,” I said.
The burning lens flickered away. “You can’t? Why not?”
“I have Duane’s Syndrome in that eye.”
With my right eye, the one not being examined, I saw a smile flicker across his face, an expression I can only describe with the hackneyed word elfish. Dr. de Souza resembled an elf. Indeed, it occurred to me that he might have been one.
“Duane’s Syndrome! Really!” He bent closer to my left eye. “Look left?” he said again, this time with a different tone.
“Really, I can’t”
“Interesting,” he said, “Very interesting. But it causes me a little problem.” He stepped back and stroked his chin. “I must see your entire retina in order to find where the rip is. When there is that much blood in an eye, there is surely a rip. But if you can’t move your eye, I can’t see the whole expanse.” He paused again, looking at me as if I were a coconut that was being resistant to cracking. “What to do?”
The question was rhetorical. He knew exactly what to do.
“Here’s the thing. We’ll just pop that eye a little.” We will? He produced a demonic little metal spatula, which he pushed all too firmly against my upper eyelid, into the seam between my eyeball and its socket. “Now,” he said, “Let’s see.”
Some of my earliest memories are of ophthalmologists’ offices. When I was very small, my parents began taking me on an intermittent quest for the doctor with the answer. I remember dim rooms, eye charts, pleasant technicians with quiet voices, inexplicable lenses and instruments, cases, containers, bottles, droppers, a menagerie of gadgets designed for the simple purpose of covering one eye. Above all, I remember “eye doctors,” in those days men to a man: thin, balding individuals, they form a composite archetype in my mind. “Watch the light,” they go on saying quietly in my mind. “Look here at my nose. Don’t move your head. Follow my finger with your eyes.”
The technology of ophthalmology has changed a great deal since the middle 1950s, but the end-user environment of the profession has remained almost exactly the same: dimness, quiet, an atmosphere of tight-lipped, urgent authority. This is very important, the body language of the examination chair tells you, but don’t be alarmed, we’re here to help, we know what to do. At some point the eye chart ceased to be a poster tacked to a wall; it turned into a mirror, and then into a screen, capable of multitasking. But someone has been at pains to make it look pretty much the same as it always did. Going to the ophthalmologist is a return to a familiar if vaguely fraught milieu. We’ve always been here, studying you, says the table in the waiting room, even though you haven’t thought of us in years.
A visit to the eye doctor never frightened me, even when I was quite small. I can remember being baffled, feeling flattered by a certain level of attention, and always, before it was over, becoming bored. Yet there was a sort of unspoken urgency about these pilgrimages. Two or three times a year, my mother would tell me one evening, “Tomorrow we’re going to see an eye doctor,” and early the next morning, often before dark, we’d be in the family car. Sometimes I’d go to sleep in my bed and wake up in the Ford’s back seat, feeling the vibration of the road through the cushions, a sensation I always enjoyed. Where were we going again? To a town we’d never visited, where there was a different doctor, one who–but look, dear, there’s a pretty horse! And look at that old house behind that hedgerow! What do you think it would be like. . . .
After several years of this, it dawned on me that there might be something wrong.
The internet is an infinite source of entertaining information. On the website of The Ophthalmology Hall of Fame (!), http://www.mrcophth.com/ophthalmologyhalloffame/duane.html, we learn the following facts:
Alexander Duane was one of the first investigators in ophthalmology with a special interest in accommodation and squint. He was born into a prominent family in Molone, New York. His father was the army general James Duane and his boyhood was spent moving between various postings. He was educated at the Union College, Cincinnati, where he gained many academic rewards and thereafter studied medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, which later became the medical school of Columbia University. After graduation in 1881 Duane interned at the New York Hospital and was educated in eye medicine by the German-born American ophthalmologist Hans Jakob Knapp (1832-1911). He specialized in this discipline and commenced ophthalmological practice in New York in 1884. For a brief period he taught ophthalmology at the Cornell University.
The first time I ever heard the mystical phrase “Duane’s Syndrome” I was, unsurprisingly, in an ophthalmologist’s office. It was 1986; I was 36 years old, Reagan was in the White House, and I lived, strange as it seemed to me, in the middle of the state of Ohio. My glasses were beginning to give me trouble, as they did routinely every couple of years. I was in for a routine exam, to see whether I needed a new prescription. And as I was relatively new in town, I had sought out a new doctor.
The office was one of the infinite series–we have some new information, said the diplomas in gilt frames on the wall–and so I felt immediately at home. I went through the usual routine–insurance card, medical history, a delay for the evident purpose of reading magazines on gourmet cooking and the Super Bowl; then a preliminary examination conducted by a technician concluding with the administering of the magic Drops of Dilation that made one Allergic to the Light, another wait while the drops’ spell matured, and then at last the arrival of The Doctor.
This particular doctor was a little out of the ordinary. She was tall, blindingly blond (or maybe the blindingness was an effect of the dilation of my pupils), and had a definite but graceful Swedish accent. I had picked this practice more or less randomly from the telephone book, but I had made my choice based on the fact that the doctor of record was female (it didn’t hurt, either, that the office was almost directly across the street from my house, but in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, almost everything was just across the street). My motivation in so choosing was not, whatever you may be thinking, anything other than pragmatic. I had discovered some years before that I preferred female doctors in every specialization. Not to make hasty or invidious generalizations, but: it seemed to me then, and seems to me still, that male doctors have a tendency to be more interested in themselves and their own authority than in the patient and his or her malady–whereas female doctors, on average, will actually listen to the patient. Individual experience will vary, but the statistical tendency remains.
When she pointed at the bridge of her nose and said “Look right here,” I was glad to do so. When, after a couple of minutes of examining my eyes, her face suddenly lit up in delight, it was not, alas, I who was the cause of her pleasure; it was my Syndrome: it was that bastard Duane.
“You have Duane’s Syndrome!” she declared (in fact, she almost sang).
“Of course!” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and at the same time a variety of miracle. “May I ask you,” she went on, “would you mind very much if. . . .”
“Would I mind if. . . .”
“I’d like my assistants to see this. We don’t see many cases of Duane’s Syndrome, and it would be useful for them.”
My poor mother was one of the first generation of mothers deflected by the work of Dr. Benjamin Spock. In 1946, his The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care appeared; it became an immediate best seller. 1946, the year of my older brother’s birth, is a threshold year for the baby boomer generation; America shifted gears, and even our isolated farmer family was not unaffected. Whether or not my mother ever read that book I cannot say; it’s possible that she did, but it’s equally possible that she was influenced by newspaper and magazine second- and third-hand interpretations of the master. She was not in any case a theorist. She was a smart, empathic woman with little education who loved her children, respected authority, and was easily motivated by guilt. She was also a traditionalist, a respecter of the mores and methodologies of the past. This constellation of attitudes left her at a crossroads where we children were concerned: one moment we were tender souls at the mercy of a traumatizing world; the next, we were simply pint-sized adults who needed to suck it up and tough it out.
Exactly when she noticed that all was not right with my eyes is unknown to me, but it must have been early on. Duane’s syndrome is a “birth defect,” and its presence is fairly obvious. Clearly it worried her. My earliest memories of our family doctor involves not only needles and gigantic tongue depressors, but also the injunction “Watch my finger; don’t move your head, move your eyes.”
It must have worried her that this little affliction of mine did not fit any familiar pattern. It was not “lazy eye,” or amblyopia, an eye problem more serious and more common but altogether more treatable than mine; when I was in elementary school, several of my classmates wore the familiar “lazy eye” patch, a piece of of white tin designed to cover the stronger of their two eyes, encouraging them to strengthen the other eye by constant use. What was wrong with me more resembled strabismus, or crossed eyes, but if I did indeed suffer from strabismus, it was not a typical case.
As I reconstruct this dimension of my past, it seems to me that my mother was caught between an impulse to find a cure and a sort of inertial fatalism. She would seek out, or hear of, a doctor we had not tried; we would make the pilgrimage; once again, the doctor would be baffled. I remember once, when I was five or six, one such professional gave my mother a pamphlet of eye exercises; I was to do them twice a day. My mother led me through the regimine for perhaps a week with so little enthusiasm for it that even at that age I noticed. When we gave it up, I asked her why we had stopped. “The doctor said we should do this,” she told me, “and when I asked him ‘Will it help?’ he only said ‘It won’t hurt.’” That formulation still seems to me the perfect encapsulization of the whole problem.
“The light of the body is the eye,” we are told in the Book of Luke; “therefore, when thine eye is single, thy whole body is also full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body is also full of darkness” (11:33). I’m glad to say that–many though the Bible verses I was required to commit to memory may have been–I did not run across this passage until I was an adult. By the time I was seven, it was clear that my vision was becoming problematic. What would I have made of the “body full of darkness,” or the even more peculiar logic of the single eye versus the evil one?
Blissful in my Biblical ignorance, I was taken, in the fall of 1957, to yet another eye clinic, this time the Oschner Clinic in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I have since come to understand that it was my second grade teacher, Mrs. Mullins, who had suggested to my parents that I should have my eyes (if not actually my whole head) examined. Mrs. Mullins had noticed that I was a very able reader, that I loved books, and that I tended to hold them closer to my face while reading than regulation normally allowed for. This was something new, and so off we went on another mission of pure vision.
The examining room at the Oschner Clinic was a familiar place full of familiar objects; it had the hushed twilight quality of so many other similar rooms I had visited over the years. This time, there would be, before it was all over, a new set of examinations; but the preliminaries by definition came first, and quickly the old problem became apparent.
I cannot remember the doctor’s name, but I recall him as a tall, quiet, faceless man, bald with a fringe of black hair; he was, perhaps, a little heavier of build than the stereotype I had assembled, with a prominent belly under his unbuttoned white coat. But he struck me, even at the time, as uncommonly quick-minded, and above average in common sense.
“Follow my finger with your eyes,” he said. “Don’t move your head, just move your eyes.” The finger tracked slowly from center to my right, then back. Center was his world-orienting nose. Then the moving finger writ to the left, and as it did so, it became two fingers, and on the right edge of my sight, the nose became two noses. Then, as the finger moved back, the world changed from double to single.
I don’t recall the ensuing conversation in its entirety. What I remember was this: that sensible man produced a stainless steel cup from somewhere in the room and set it on the table in front of me. “Put your hand on the cup,” he said, and I did so. Then he moved the cup to the far left side of the table. “Again,” he said, and I put my hand on the cup. Again he moved it, this time far right. “Again.” He repeated this exercise many times, and each time, unerringly, I put my hand on the cup.
“Well,” the doctor told my parents, “it’s clear that he doesn’t suffer from continual double vision. If he did, he would miss the cup half the time.” He demonstrated someone flailing to put a hand on the mirage of a cup; his heavy hand thumped the table. “It would be possible to perform the kind of surgery in his case that we perform for strabismus, but my guess is that it would do no good. Whatever the trouble is, it’s not really a problem unless it’s a problem, if you see what I mean. The boy seems to adjust his sight quite well to the way his eyes work; it’s not giving him any real practical trouble. I suggest, then, that you just don’t worry about it.”
Don’t worry about it was the best of all possible advice, especially for my mother, who naturally preferred not to. For me, it was impossible–particularly from that day forward–not to give considerable thought, if not worry as such, to questions of vision. Following the exchange about the ways my eyes tracked, we proceeded to a more ordinary eye exam, which was the real point of this visit. I read the eye chart; I went through the (for me) novel ritual of looking at letters through various lenses slipped into a slotted frame (”which looks better, number 1 (click) or number 2 (clack).” Then came dilation, a waiting period, a further examination. During the dilation period, my vision slipped into cloudiness; I was given cardboard sunglasses; I tried to read a book but could not focus on it no matter how close to my face I held it.
Following this series of rituals, we hung around Baton Rouge for awhile. We visited the state capitol building, stopping to visit the site of the assassination of Huey Long; in my silly square cardboard sunglasses I tried to read the plaque commemorating this event, and failed–but I fingered the alleged bullet holes in the marble wall. Then we rode the 34 floors to the observation deck high over the city. I had never been so far above the ground–even elevators were a novelty to me in 1957, and my first ride in an airplane more than a decade in the future–and I was excited at the prospect of seeing the ground from such a height, but everything was blurred for me.
The drops used for dilation have evolved since the late 1950s and the effect does not linger nearly so long now as it did then; my eyes would not return to their normal state until the next morning. Well before then–following our tour of Baton Rouge landmarks such as they were–we returned to Oschners, where a new pair of glasses were waiting for me. I put them on, but not much happened; the effect of the dilation cancelled the new lenses. And the next morning, when I woke up and put them on, not much looked different; but when I took them off, there was a marked difference in what I saw. Without the glasses, the world was in soft focus; leaves on trees were indistinct; print in books was fuzzy. I had not noticed before that there was any problem with my vision, but now that I had the glasses, my world without them was a different one than the “corrected” world I saw through them.
The effect, when I took them off, was similar to the effect of dilation on my sight. The suspicion dawned on me–one which I still carry in the back of my mind and examine now and then, unseriously and yet indelibly–that the doctor had put something in my eyes that had tampered with my sight. Before that day, as far as I was concerned, I saw fine. Now, I was near-sighted, a “four eyes,” as my older brother wasted no time in pointing out. Someone had to be responsible for this. The quiet-voiced sensible ophthalmologist was the logical suspect.
Eye and Tooth
My whole eye was sunset red,
the old cut cornea throbbed,
I saw things darkly,
as through an unwashed goldfish bowl.
I lay all day on my bed.
I chain-smoked through the night,
learning to flinch
at the flash of the matchlight.
Outside, the summer rain,
a simmer of rot and renewal,
fell in pinpricks.
Even new life is fuel.
My eyes throb.
Nothing can dislodge
the house with my first tooth
noosed in a knot to the doorknob.
Nothing can dislodge
the triangular blotch
of rot on the red roof,
a cedar hedge, or the shade of a hedge.
No ease from the eye
of the sharp-shinned hawk in the birdbook there,
with reddish brown buffalo hair
on its shanks, one ascetic talon
clasping the abstract imperial sky.
an eye for an eye,
a tooth for a tooth.
No ease for the boy at the keyhole,
when the women’s white bodies flashed
in the bathroom. Young, my eyes began to fail.
Nothing! No oil
for the eye, nothing to pour
on those waters or flames.
I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.
(from Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead)
This poem of Robert Lowell’s will resonate for anyone who has suffered from problems with the eyes. It will also resonate, I think, for anyone who has suffered from a vision problem in the artistic sense, if not with visionary problems as such. Lowell undoubtedly suffered from all three. He wore thick horn-rimmed glasses, 1950s style, the kind that might have made him look at home with a pocket protector in his shirt and a slide rule case on his belt. Manic depressive, he had clear if sporadic issues with the nature of reality itself. Caught on the cusp between the great modernist moment and something that still lacks a name–postmodernism is an inadequate word that I for one hope will be shortly flushed down the toilet of history–he sometimes floundered in his art, sometimes magisterally lost his way (and that he allowed himself to do this, even after his fame was well established, is a testament to the greatness of his obsession). He wanted, too, to be a visionary in the strict sense; he would have exchanged his Pulitzer Prize for locust and honey in the desert if he had been given the keys to the throne room of Spiritus Mundi. His adherence in the 1940s to a rather radical brand of Catholicism (he was a convert) led famously to his being incarcerated for refusing the draft and opting out of the Second World War.
Certain poets, certain poems, were burrs under Lowell’s saddle–poems he loved and wanted to have written, but which were for various reasons out of reach for him. This, surely, is true for virtually every poet, every artist, and is simultaneously a source of frustration and an incentive to the work. We know how the young Lowell loved and, in his own 20th-century key strove to emulate, Milton: the blind poet who “saw” the whole of human history, in Christian terms at least, in Paradise Lost. We also know how Lowell, along with a whole generation, was torqued by Eliot. These two masters, one out of the depths of history, one on the threshold of his own moment, were the crosspieces on which Lowell the poet was crucified–willingly so, for part of his brilliant and tortured soul longed for a crucifixion peculiarly his own, upside-down, perhaps, on the cross of Poetry.
One other poet, less intensely perhaps but potently nonetheless, was in this sense a great problem for Lowell.
Once, visiting friends who loved poetry as much as I, I played a game we enjoyed: we’d get a bottle of wine (or several) and all the poetry books in the house, put everything on the dining room table, and drink at least some of the wine; then we’d pick up books of poetry at random, open them in an equally random way, and read whatever presented itself. When it was my turn–my fourth or fifth turn, probably, after several glasses of wine–the book that fell into my hand was the wonderful Farrar, Straus, and Giroux reprint of Lowell’s Life Studies and For the Union Dead in one volume. I looked at it with satisfaction; it was the early 1980s, but I had already studied those poems with care and attention for a long while. When I opened the book, though, I found myself looking at a poem to which I had hardly paid any attention. I recalled reading it before and dismissing it–not without reason–as one of Lowell’s “lesser” poems, a relative throwaway. But now, reading it aloud, I was suddenly riveted by the poem’s first line:
Walking and walking in a mothy robe. . . .
Why had I never heard the echo? Of course, of course, of course: the great model was Yeats, the poem “The Second Coming,” with its famous opening: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” “The Second Coming” is an enigma to most readers, and to poets it is also a provocation: how did he do it? Where did he get that authority of voice? What is the source of that vision? For a poet with Lowell’s proclivities, these questions must have been urgent, and penetratingly painful.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight. . . .
Yes, Bill Yeats, so you say, but how? Why you? Why not me? What’s the secret; what’s the trick; what offering to what god must you deliver to bring forth that poem and make it whip its great wind against the eardrums of the world?
Lowell’s poem provides us with a glimpse of how this poem, and these questions, affected him:
Dropping South: Brazil
Walking and walking in a mothy robe,
one finger pushing through the pocket hole,
I crossed the reading room and met my soul,
hunched, spinning downward on the colored globe.
The ocean was the old Atlantic still,
always the swell greened in, rushed white, and fell,
now warmer than the air. However, there
red flags forbade our swimming. No one swam.
A lawless gentleness. The Latin blonde,
two strips of ribbon, ripened in the sun,
sleeping alone and pillowed on one arm.
No competition. Only rings of boys
butted a ball to keep it in the air,
while inland, people starved, and struck, and died—
unhappy Americas, ah tristes tropiques!
and nightly in the gouges by the tide,
macumba candles courted Yemanjá
tall, white, the fish-tailed Virgin of the sea,
corpselike with calla lilies, walking
the water in her white night gown. “I am falling.
Santa Maria, pray for me, I want to stop,
but I have lost my foothold on the map,
now falling, falling, bent, intense, my feet
breaking my clap of thunder on the street.”
I will leave it to astute readers to parse the significance of all the parallels and dissonances between this poem and “The Second Coming,” particularly that between Yeats’s Sphinx and Lowell’s Yemanjá, the mermaid-goddess of the Brazilian Umbanda religion, originally a spirit-queen from Yorubaland in Africa. Perhaps more broadly she has become a feature of Santaria religions and Vodou; she is an orisha, part stand-in for the godhead, part nature deity.
For my purposes, what is most important is the grasping of the nature of the visionary moment. In Yeats’s poem, the narrator’s purview is immediately global: from the falcon and the falconer, we follow the widening gyre quickly outward and upward, to a vantage point above the globe where all earthly locations feel immediately visible. For the faded figure in Lowell’s poem, he of the mothy robe and its pocket hole, the globe is not the earth itself but the globe in his study–a reduced scope, surely, from das ding an sich to its mere representation, upon which perches the narrator’s soul like a little daimon, an homunculus. From there we are sucked willy-nilly, randomly it seems, to an inscrutable Brazilian beach: a semblance of luxury stagnates the surface, which is presided over by Yemanjá’s priestess, the sleeping “Latin blonde” while the interior hides something different: starvation, political strife, death. The narrator, bewildered, slides off this scene like a fried egg off a teflon pan: myopic American, he cannot enter here. Slipping toward the goddess, who to him is the Goddess of Otherness, he evokes two tutelary spirits, neither of whom come to his aid. One is Santa Maria, the Virgin Mary, who is another of the emanations of Yemanjá–or perhaps it’s the other way around–but a more familiar version; the other is a scientist, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, through the agency of his great despairing book Tristes Tropique, which is a jeremiad wrapped in an autobiography. We will never understand the cultures we travel to study, Levi-Strauss argues, because the presence of the anthropologist alters, perhaps destroys, the very culture he or she has come to study. “The first thing travel has now to show us,” he writes there, “is the filth, our filth, which we have thrown in the face of humanity.” The “prayer” that concludes the poem is a doomed one, a prayer of the failure of vision. For Yeats’s narrator, the vision simply closes, and he can still say, as he does in his enormously famous and endlessly quoted conclusion, “Now I know”
. . . now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
He knows, yes; and as far as we can tell, at the end of the poem he is still up in the sky somewhere, watching. Lowell’s narrator, however, falls. He is intense, but he is bent (a good formulation for Lowell’s poetry, and his mind, throughout), and the voice that should be great within him, his thunder, is broken.
Long though the explication may be–and there is a good deal more I could say about these two poems side by side–most of it struck me all in a flash of insight once I saw the linkage. I don’t want to argue, still, that this is one of Lowell’s great, or even very good, poems. In and of itself it is perfectly all right. But as a gauge of Lowell’s visionary evolution, it is crucial. The party line on Lowell is that he futzed around with religion when he was young, converting from is Boston Protestantism to the intense Catholicism of his early adulthood, but then, having discovered Freud among other things, he left all that behind and began taking his own troubled life as the subject of his poetry. While there is truth in that distillation, there is also much in it that is misleading. “Dropping South, Brazil,” is, I am convinced, an indication of where the visionary impulse in Lowell went. It was not extinguished, it was defeated; but the defeat was not absolute, and the breakage not without issue.
One last important visionary, with a falcon of his own, should not be left out of account: Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet who embodied another of Lowell’s thwarted ambitions, a genuine if deeply difficult priesthood. Hopkins was a gnarly, meaty practitioner, a formidable poetic musician, whose enduring innovation he called “spung rhythm,” which he derived from what he called the “instress” of the world–spirit (the accent in the poetic line) striving against, and chiming with, matter (the unstressed syllable). For Hopkins, the vision per se was a given: the world is beautiful, and the poet praises it (when he is not lamenting his own shortcomings and his error of despair); what mattered most was the music, the hymn within which one broadcast praise. For Lowell, the problem is different: it is the vision itself which falls short, and he shores it up with his own peculiar distortions: “I saw things darkly, / as through an unwashed goldfish bowl,” or as he puts it in another poem, “Myopia: a Night,” “all’s / ramshackle, streaky, weird / for the near-sighted, just / a foot away.”
Lowell became a practitioner of “sprung vision,” a way of seeing that was accurate because it was precisely “off,” within which the so-called “confessional” impulse reveals itself as still part of the pattern of a visionary exercise, however partial, blurred, myopic. That myopia, for Lowell, is inescapably ours, if not necessarily universal. Perhaps it is a product of our historical context. Perhaps it is a product of a particularly American short-sightedness. Does the “Latin blonde” see more than Lowell’s narrator? It’s hard to say: she’s sleeping, and in sleep she has access to her own beautiful dreaming, while Lowell is left insomniac, trapped in his waking nightmare. If for Joyce “History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake,” for Lowell it seems to be a nightmare for which only falling asleep is a cure. He knew his history, and he wrote it: cultural history, and the history of Robert Lowell. If there was a failure of consonance between those two narratives, it could only be because one could not see it. My history is necessarily a product of cultural history, Lowell’s poetry reasons. It has to be. If I don’t see precisely how that is true, then that is a symptom of my own blindness. Therefore, I will confess to being blind. In that confession will inhere my truest vision.
The following information is quoted from a website called Genome (http://www.genome.gov/11508984):
Duane’s syndrome (DS) is a rare, congenital (present from birth) eye movement disorder. Most patients are diagnosed by the age of 10 years and DS is more common in girls (60 percent of the cases) than boys (40 percent of the cases). DS is a miswiring of the eye muscles, causing some eye muscles to contract when they shouldn’t and other eye muscles not to contract when they should. People with DS have a limited (and sometimes absent) ability to move the eye outward toward the ear (abduction) and, in most cases, a limited ability to move the eye inward toward the nose (adduction). Often, when the eye moves toward the nose, the eyeball also pulls into the socket (retraction), the eye opening narrows and, in some cases, the eye will move upward or downward. Many patients with DS develop a face turn to maintain binocular vision and compensate for improper turning of the eyes. In about 80 percent of cases of DS, only one eye is affected, most often the left. However, in some cases, both eyes are affected, with one eye usually more affected than the other.
My case of Duane’s is typical. I have not a “limited” but an “absent” abduction of the left eye; and while my adduction is relatively unaffected, I do exhibit some retraction: as the eye tracks right, the eyeball is pulled back a bit into the socket. My explanation for this, which is purely of my own invention, is that the atrophied muscles are unyielding and as the eye moves away from them they anchor it down, pulling it inward.
The long and short of it is that my left eye, while tracking more or less normally to the right, will not track leftward past the middle. I suffer, therefore, some loss of peripheral vision on the left side. My left eye–or rather the area around the eye–has a visible droop on the left side, since the eyeball never rotates to that side; the muscles around the eye have atrophied due to disuse. Finally, if I look at something or someone obliquely to my left without moving my head, I am in fact suddenly cross-eyed, a condition I can correct easily simply by turning my head until the eyes are working in parallel again. The effect is visible and often quite noticable; it was this symptom that worried my mother until the Oschner’s clinic doctor released her from anxiety, and sent us all on our quest for answers–answers we never really got.
I was in my middle thirties before I had a name for this condition, and the full explanation for it followed quickly from that revelation from the “Swedish blond” ophthalmologist of Mt. Vernon, Ohio. But I had understood Duane’s Syndrome all my life from the inside. Turning my head exaggeratedly to the left has always been a necessary over-correction of mine; dealing with the mild teasing, and the interest, that came from the strange manifestation of my inability has been familiar to me longer than my memory extends, and is with me still.
Myopia is something else again. As is usually the case, my near-sightedness was progressive throughout my teenaged years and into my twenties; every year I had to trade a pair of glasses for a stronger pair. Short-sightedness is sympomatic of a hyperextended eyeball, one that tends toward the shape of an egg rather than that of a sphere; the focal points of my eyes are in the wrong place, and so the world is blurred. As one grows, the hyperextention becomes more exaggerated, and stronger corrective lenses are necessary.
To what extent does the warpedness of my vision contribute to my poetry? We can be reasonably sure that it does not cause it, else all nearsighted people would be poets, and all poets nearsighted, an assertion that is not (quite) true even metaphorically speaking. Nevertheless, I am certain that, had I not had various kinds of problems with my eyes, my poetry would be different. My vision would be different. I might trust the world to be what it is more than I do. I would not have access to that profound alteration in the apparent nature of things to which removing one’s glasses gives rise. Without the “unwashed goldfish bowl” of my peculiarly distorted sight, I might believe more seamlessly and yet more naively in what Joyce called “the ineluctable modality of the visible.”
A case of Duane’s Syndrome
For many years I had been warned. A person whose eyes are like yours . . . there is a tendency . . . beware of certain symptoms. Sitting in Dr. de Souza’s examination room, waiting, as one does, for various things to take place before the doctor appears, I thought of the history of my vision. It presented itself as a series of identical visits to rooms like this one–in effect, of visits to this room, where I had been so many times before, even though I had never actually been here. The eyeball gets longer and longer. Eventually, perhaps, the viscous humor inside the eye separates from the retina. When it does, the retina may tear. This process may be more or less serious. It can result in partial or total detachment of the retina. The end result in extreme cases can be blindness.
I had finally seen the flashing, the weird heat lightning in the eye. I had seen the gout of blood, which presented itself as a ghostly gray plume in the middle of my vision. Here at last, as the Bible puts it, “that which I had feared was upon me.” And as is so often–but alas not always, no indeed–that which I had feared was not so bad. I had to have a little repair job done, which Dr. de Souza committed freehand with a little hand-held laser; it worked on my retina like a tiny nail gun, shooting bursts of cauterizing light onto the tear. This process was weirdly painful; one is not accustomed to feeling tiny nails, as it were, shot against the back of the eye, and the soul protests at its window being dealt with in such fashion. But the thing was done.
What I will not soon forget, though, was the moment irony entered the room like a demented technician, right on cue and perfect of performance. Of my nameless syndrome, fifty years ago, that Oschner’s ophthalmologist–probably dead now–had said: it’s not a problem unless it’s a problem. Now, of my Duane’s Syndrome, Dr. de Souza said: Interesting. But it causes me a little problem.
A little problem. All those years I sat in my boring classroom experiementing with my weird eye: if I turn my eyes this way, if I try it that way: and what are those strange translucent objects floating in my field of sight? And how is it a tree looks one way with glasses on, another with glasses off–which is real? What have the doctors done to me? Something in my thought: they took my good clear sight away, they gave me glasses. Who has done this thing?
A grownup forgets all this of course. Of course. And yet, St. Augustine, more grownup than anyone ever has been, realized suddenly, “I have become a problem unto myself.”
“Here’s the thing,” said Dr. de Souza. “We’ll just pop that eye a little.” We will? He produced a demonic little metal spatula, which he pushed all too firmly against my upper eyelid, into the seam between my eyeball and its socket. “Now,” he said, “Let’s see.”
My muse, my Sphinx, my Yemanjá: Sprung vision. What image out of the soul of the laser will come to trouble my sight? Yes. We’ll see. We’ll see