Cole Swenson

The Invention of Streetlights

             noctes illustratas
             (the night has houses)
                                                 and the shadow of the fabulous
                                     broken into handfuls—these

open into places;
             a candle walks down the street occasionally blinded by trees.

Certain cells, it's said, can generate light on their own.

There are organisms that could fit on the head of a pin
and light entire rooms.

You could hire a man
on any corner with a torch to light you home

                                                 were lamps made of horn
and a loom of flares moving from above we watched
Notre Dame seem small.
Now the streets stand still.

By 1890, it took a pound of powdered magnesium
to photograph a midnight ball.

While as early as 50 BCE, riotous soldiers leaving a Roman bath
sliced through the ropes that hung the lamps from tree to tree
                                       and aloft us, this
                                       new and larger room
Flambeaux the arboreal
                                       was the life of Julius Caesar
               in whose streets
               in which a single step could be heard
We opened all our windows

and looked out on a listening world, laced here and there with points of light
                                                           Notre Dame of the Unfinished Sky
oil slicks burning on the river, someone down on the corner
striking a match to read by.

Paris was the first modern city to light its streets
             The inhabitants were ordered
              in 1524 to burn a candle in every window in the dark there were 912 streets
                          walked into this arc until by stars
                          makes steps sharp you are
             and are not alone
by public decree
October 1558: the lanterns were similar to those used in mines:
we were kings
                                     and on into the spiral of our riches
still reign: falots or great vases of pitch
lit on every corner
                             follow you, flicker
                                                          in a passing window
                                                                                         in a city of thieves, which,
but a few weeks later, were replaced by chandeliers.

While others claim all London was alight by 1414
                                                  so utter a vigil it's almost careless
who were ordered
out of every window, come a wrist with a lanthorn
                                                                               and told
                                                                                              hold it right there
and be on time
and not before
and watched below
the faces lit, and watched the faces pass.           And turned back in
(the face goes on) and watched the lights go out. Here the numbers are instructive;
for instance,
                     in the early 18th century, London hung some 15,000 lamps.
And now we find (1786) they've turned to crystal, paced precisely
at the time it would take to run
                                                 Venice started in 1687 with a bell,
                                                  upon the hearing of which, we all in unison
match in hand, and together strike them against an upper tooth and touch the tiny flame
to anything, and when times get rough (crime up, etc.) all we have to do is throw oil out     
across the canals to make the lighting uncommonly extensive. Sometimes we do it just to
shock the rest of Europe, and at other times because we find it beautiful.

Says Libanius
                         Night differs us
                                                 without us
                                                 noctes illustratas
                                                             but for times of public grief
when the streets were left unlit, and on we went,

dark marks in the markets and voices in the cafes, in the crowded squares,
the sense of touch; the living, a lantern
                                                             swinging above the door

any time a child is born, be it Antioch, Syria, or Edessa—
and then there were the festivals,

                                                the festum encaeniorum, and others in which
                                                they call idolatrous, these torches
                       half a city wide
be your houses.



© 2002 Electronic Poetry Review