“The Invention of the Kaleidoscope” Paisley Rekdal

I know this is long, dear galleons, but it’s well worth it. This remains high on (if not the top of) my list of truly spectacular pieces of poetry.


Sir David Brewster, 1830

click, say the gems in their golden cell

The idea occurred to me of giving light
to objects, the inventor writes, at home:
the birth of his first son

These items
placed loosely in a cell
at the end of an instrument;

sleeve of brass
or glass, polished, rough-ground, varnished-
on the outside- black. A house of stone.

I wanted to give light

so that every simple form could be converted,
beautified by being combined
with an inverted image of itself: so

click, say the gems in their golden cell

I’m out for inversion, invention, re-
construction; myself
disunited yet same enough to point
any hour across the room and still say, Me.

The drug you’ve given me is not working.

Or working in a way it should not be working: blood sizzles
and the brain’s gone champagne;
where the sober headache was, only fizz remains,
resists, the way consciousness resists

this power surge blackening
out my body every
twenty minutes, turning the mind
to a beach in France and the senses
to a lighthouse beam in fog.

What’s the angle, angel?

you ask as my mouth goes (again) slack
and my head lolls against your pillow dusted
with cat hair.

Nausea, is my reply

but the word spins within me, clicks
and rattles up against new syllables:
Sauna, followed by Sane Seas, followed
by the Gaelic, Naes.
Outside, Dublin whirls

in rain-slick streets goosebumped with cobblestone,
the heavy, chocolate scent of hops and filthy quays,
the slaughterhouse behind your flat.
On windy, windowless nights when I press my nose
against your naked neck I can smell the blood
beside the blood- I’ve learned

to love the meat of you.


Last week,
they tried to set off a bomb on Grafton. You arrived
outside my dormitory in an Austrian military jacket
stiff with rain and spilled tea, packet of opium stuffed
deep into a bouquet of flowers. I hate
having been born Catholic, you hissed.

And looked at me with such envy then, my blank,
ahistorical gaze overseas-

To be American is to avoid everything, isn’t it? you’d asked.
Your body’s slump
perfectly symmetrical with my broken desk chair.

I suppose
it is an accident anything is beautiful. So

click, say the gems in their golden cell

Brewster, 1830, postulates: Only

the same apparent magnitude
and nearly the same intensity of light
are conditions
necessary enough to the production of symmetrical
thus beautiful forms.

I suppose

it would be better to describe than define him:
hours assembling the lush
egg whites bleeding into pockmarked blues,
red pearls bubbling out of whippet glass,
the millefiori and metallic bead festoons-
feathery gems, ampoules of yellow oils.
His son giggles in the crib. Brewster
plucks then puts cat whiskers in this first object case.

Even the slightest tilt

changes everything but everything
just slightly, he writes.
It is possible this obsession makes him
admirable. It is possible to point
at this person from across history and still say, Me.

What I knew: the pill looked so

anonymous. One fat tablet the color of cicada wings, coffee
crystals, moth antennae. Six hours later
the walls pulse. Reds and pockmarked blues,
ampoules of yellow oils.

Even the most disgusting forms,

notes Brewster in his book, exhibit
chaste combinations of shape and color.

I wanted to reconstruct, re-
member myself out of shards of glass.
I said: I wanted to write a body out of light.

click, say the gems in their golden cell

The body of a man on his green knees
on Grafton, the bodies of police
waving everyone back: back
from the bomb cover like a yellow helmet, the man’s
clever fingers nimbling under it-

The stone exam halls cleared,
students and I stand smoking cigarettes
cheerfully outside the lobbies.

We wait for the explosion

that never comes which is why
we feel safe waiting for it: millefiori of splintered glass,
cement tumbling in dust like a billion moth wings.

This could go on forever, the newspapers said.

During choir practice
I saw you cross the square
humming the requiem you loved, the notes
of the father’s shattered body
commended to God and death.

At least you’re trained to believe
in something, I’d replied (stupidly) to your Austrian sleeve,
misunderstanding the desire to not
believe, to shed

words like figurines; to whirl
a meaning outside of- not myth, not
hope- something more primitive:


(Naes, naes, naes, whispered the trees.)

You, I said. You
be Me. With the large car and secular education.
A sudden rumble, a split
in the air and all of us raised our hands above our faces
and ducked, sure that somewhere
fire was raining upon us.


I said: I wanted to push the body into light-

like a rabbit through a felt hat,
a ship through a lighthouse beam-

click, say the gems in their golden cell

I believe in one God, Brewster remembers trying
out, licensed
minister upon his first pulpit, but the forms of words
cheated him in knowing: it was all a swither, a mistake;
a discourse sticked
as soon as it began- the syllables
like fists of lightning

illuminating only the science

under which his tongue and brain might crouch,
muscular Niobes, children under their stone veils,
single arms upraised before their faces-


our faces pointed at the sun.
The field’s a lethal green and you are telling me about

that other woman you left me for, then left again
to return to me, about:
Your shampoo smells like ice cream;
do they have to overdo everything in America?

And this is love,
as we commanded.
Everything the same just slightly different.

Before you, men in pubs used to tell me
they were with the IRA- it means a different thing
in Dublin than it does in the States-

and soured when I wouldn’t take their line. Your line
was the opposite:

they’d shot your brother in the face

while he worked at a Belfast video store-
the only other boy
just your height and hair color, the one
you could always point to and say, Me.

And the seasons deepened into rain, a winter
chill devoid of snow but still aware of it,
as I deepened into layers of sweatshirts
parents sent from the States- so many

a boy in choir stopped singing once to ask me
how it felt, being pregnant. Pregnant?
Naes naes naes. I crouched

beneath the word as if it were a blow: a raining
of arrows upon the face.

(The drug? What is this drug you’ve given me?)

England, 1830. Influenza rages.
The inventor’s toys and pamphlets are locked up
in favor of a different science, equally
untested: drugs.

When his first child dies of fever, Brewster slips a lock
of hair into the object case
to watch the nut gleam of his son turn,
then turn into something else.

Every result is a matter of uncertainty, he writes in an unsent letter.
The art of forming designs a state

of extreme imperfection.


Imagine me

on my first vacation without you,
wandering alone through the Uffizi, over and over

finding the same room- the marble hall filled
with the white statues of Niobe and her children, each one
with his arms raised, brothers watching brothers die,
sisters holding sisters
as they fall, pale blanks
for faces as the stone gowns cling-

The eye writes in fiery arrows raining from the sky
as a boy lays dying on a tablet, hole burst
into his chest and the marble flesh puckered
around the wound like a mouth.

A week after I visited, the Uffizi was bombed.

Two of the great halls crushed, paintings
drizzled with melted tar and fire.

click, say the gems in their golden cell

A blackout; power surge: the sea
recedes until only fizz remains:
the snowy cliffsides, the stone stone stone stone.

When you first left me you’d explained, She’s
from the North. Then, returning, You’re
from the States.

The first thing you ever gave me
was a 50P kaleidoscope filled
with plastic; colored shards the size
of rock salts that shifted
and hissed: paper tube a whirl
of flattened foils; red diamonds.

What I liked was the variance
masked as similarity:

your hand wrapped around my hand as the instrument turned,

the instrument turning under your hand over mine.

I wanted to write a body out of light.

click, say the gems in their golden cells

He has now indeed some minor specialties of belief,
records Hogg of Brewster after the funeral.

That soda water is wholesomer
than beer, that a nipper of spirits in the tea
impairs the wholesomeness of body.
Shave every morning and wash your feet
each night: strange, yes, but who would wish to be severe
upon the eccentricities of genius?

He lives alone. He marries.
He lives among his angled sleeves of light.
His children die, one by one.
Then his wife. In the end, he is robbed

even of his kaleidoscope theories.

But the toy, the toy might put what’s lost
back together: fragments clinging right to fragments
until a new shape forms, a household
filled with blood and bone.
A house of stone.

The artist can have no difficulty in constructing

such an apparatus for himself, Brewster writes in private.
By means of it he will be enabled
to obtain results from the kaleidoscope

which he would have sought for in vain by any other method.

(The drug? What is this drug you’ve given me?)

What was your brother like?

Not good-looking, not brave,
you’d corrected, me wanting both though
what of you was either of these? The acne scars

like seeds pitted in your face; the gangled
form of you rising
in the last light, naked, silky, slightly blue.

What you believed:

the manager didn’t pay
either the IRA and Unionists, perhaps
was delayed in payment; they often killed
when the money ran out.

You were surprised

I didn’t want to hear more about it.

For awhile this was enough. Then
it was never enough.

I was afraid to believe

this was the place in you I couldn’t reach,
the endpoint of my ambition.
That the slivers of you rattling against and within
me might also be removed, piece
by piece.

Love me,

I wanted to say, as two of my friends
became pregnant and for a moment I wished
they were me. I was they.

No. I was lying- they
were pregnant and I didn’t want to be.

click, say the gems in their golden cell

The child in its bassinet, its brain a bowl of fire.
Above the crib hang tiny crystals, reflections,
refractions of sparks.
The body of his boy sleeps in a sleeve of crystallized light.

In my foil tube the colors clicked
and rattled against each other, changing hue
for hue.

You handed me the book by Brewster, I remember,

Color, independent of form, is incapable
of producing pleasure, Brewster finishes. Color

is merely an accident of light.


What we took on the road is what we sang:

through the barbed wire, through the burst glass.
The quiet church built to last
through anything swollen
with the first voices, what
I still recall: our requiem in Latin,
our gift in drawn-out, foreign syllables.

It was a day after the bomb and everything
was the same but slightly
different: the fewer cars,

the emptier lanes. And us-
swollen with song, our throats like living hives
of light. Every man in choir was another shade
of you: a little more flesh chipped out
from chin or chest, a little more color
drained, fetlock and eye.

I could turn

and the world’s hues would tilt with me,
from blue into green and white, into lavender
stains: the light a powder of moth wing.

I wondered if, like Cuchulain,
you shrieked for your brother at the sea

which boiled like milk below the cliffs, the whole
island a reflection, refraction of rock:
stone stone stone stone

under which the faceless were buried.
If gulls wheeled in the flickering half-light
screaming back a version of your grief.

Later, in the utter island night

we walked through as if swimming- a dark
unlit by lamps or headlights
with only the sound of the swelling sea
around us- you stopped and grabbed my wrist
to light your cigarette and the one hot spoke of color
left in all the world
was your face

my lighter

your face.

We could go on like this forever, you said.

Me pushing into you, you
pulsing like the walls with sullen light.

Or maybe:

There’s a blankness to you
that could go on forever, you said,

meaning my lack of belief, of loss.

Once I read a newspaper article about your brother.
They found him on the floor, it said, crouched
with a hand flung up before his face,

blood like arrows of fire on the floor.
No. They simply found him.
What I knew about you

I had to write in

and over. There was a blankness to you
scrubbing the blankness of me, coastline to coastline,

chert to chert, stone breaking stone
until there was nothing left but low humming:

the kyrie in a requiem, death song anonymous
in its applicability to loss.


An inexperienced eye may still admire the circular
arrangement of the imperfect, the dissimilar;
but no person acquainted with the instrument could endure
even the slightest distortion visible at its center.

(ampoules of yellow oil, moth wing, glass shards roughed
to ruby, the slow blossom of green
at the heart turning lavender, tinfoil, pearl-)

The human figure consists of two halves, one
which is the reflected image of the other.

click, say the gems in their golden cell

A minute burns and then the blackout, the power surge,
the pillow dusted with animal hair.

The walls whisper. And shadows lurch
like cat’s wings, like bird whiskers, and the world,
ever so slightly, tilts.

Hang on, you say. There is no hospital. See me?
Look how well I am. Now you.
You be Me.

Outside, Dublin whirls in rain-slick streets goosebumped
with cobblestone that spin and crackle with nausea.
The world shudders. And on the streets: a kyrie
of flame, smoke like moth wing; I can feel

before I see the bomb on Grafton, the yellow helmet,

the man’s clever fingers nimbling under it.
The lifting of a hand
to cover the face-

-the pause, the pull away: light
blossoming into new light, bodies
pushed into new positions; the same,
only slightly different. A matched set,
snatched breath: all your clothes smelling of blood.

What I knew about you:
the silver eyes, the Austrian jacket, the bag of teeth
in flowers. You had a pocketknife and skin
stained moth wing. Your favorite author was Donleavy.

To be you is to pretend
everything’s tragedy, isn’t it? I asked.

You’ll never know unless you can believe, you said.

For awhile, this was enough. Then
it was never enough.

click, say the gems in their golden cell

The child in its bassinette, cold and gleaming.
You were once just his hair color and height.

your face my lighter your face

Pauses. Pulls away.
I think it’s over, the inventor writes.

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