When You Look Up

Jan Zwicky

copyright ©Jan Zwicky, 2011

When you look up, or out,
or in, your seeing is
a substance: stuff: a density
of some kind, like a pitch
that’s just outside the range
of hearing: numb
nudge of the real.
                I saw air
once, in its nothingness
so clear it was a voice
almost, a kind of joy. I thought
of water – breath as drinking –
and the way it shows us
light. Or maybe it was light
I thought of – as though
water were the solid form
of wind, and air
a language with a single word
transparent to the world.
Your glance is this,
meltwater, mountain light.
The plunge and thunder of the pool.
The ripple at its farthest edge.

Notes on the Poem

At first glance (or even after several glimpses, as we are revisiting this poem), you might find the slim column of text that is Jan Zwicky's poem "When You Look Up" simple, modest and unassuming. But oh, the sensory shifts through which Zwicky swiftly takes you will make you appreciate each sensation in startlingly new ways. To start, how you see is compared to something tactile: "a density of some kind" ... and then in rapid succession, to something auditory: "like a pitch that’s just outside the range of hearing" How delightfully disorienting is that? It's not just how one sense is substituted for another that leaves you feeling this way. The line: "I saw air" leaps outside of the column of text surprisingly, mischievously, leading your eyes on a merry chase. As the rest of your senses follow in pursuit, it becomes clear (where the clarity, again, can take many forms) that all this sensory upheaval is created by the glance of a loved one, culminating in: "The plunge and thunder of the pool. The ripple at its farthest edge." You arrive at the final line out of breath - whatever breath is! - and exhilarated.

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