Sunday, November 01, 2020

A "dread of light" and the temptation of metaphor: John McCullough's "Sungazer"

John McCullough's poem "Sungazer" begins with an eye infection which later runs its course but leaves behind a case of photophobia, a "dread of light." It takes a long time and many attempted treatments until "[a] therapist suggest[s] I gaze at a burning match" for brief periods so that the eyes can gradually adapt to stronger and stronger light. It's tempting to read the process of physical infection, diagnosis, treatments, and remedy as a metaphor for the speaker's mental health, but that's just a side effect, as it were, of the clarity and precision of the poem's storytelling. The poem stands on its own without standing for something else at all. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 1 November)


John McCullough, Reckless Paper Birds, Penned in the Margins 2019, 46-48


It gathered when I was twenty-four, an infection

from a contact lens. The pink halo around one iris,


my dread of light. A searing bulb had the gaze

of a basilisk. Watching TV was like staring into a volcano;


my eyes boiled in their sockets. Like an arachnophobe,

I knew how many gleams there were in a room,


where they hid. I smothered windows with newspaper.

made my bedroom a dungeon. Let me vanish.


The infection went, the problem stayed. I visited

a local clinic: chin rests slow voices, drops


of fluourescein to stain my corneas. Good news,

announced the doctor: he couldn't find any problems.


This didn't sound good to the thing that wore

sunglasses indoors, that on dates blew out


the restaurant's candles. Bury me in the cellar.

I stopped leaving my room, became obsessed


with those fish that live at the bottom of the ocean

in total darkness, how natural selection breeds change:


sensitivity to the slightest shift in pressure,

jaws with rows of colossal, impossibly curved teeth.


I dreamed of looking in mirrors at my towering fangs,

my wincing eyes enormous, my skin covered


in small, brilliant scales at her to see.

A therapist suggested I gaze at a burning match


for five seconds, build up slowly. I put a time in my diary

each day for watching TV for two minutes.


It felt like counting down to execution. Finish me.

It worked. I was not killed by Anne Robinson


or the nine o'clock news. I ordered table lamps

of every kind, coloured bulbs. I left my dungeon.


Now exist in the realm of light again, I understand

there are times when it is necessary to approach


a blazing house and enter, times when I must open

my eyes wide and let in every quickening flame.

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