Light as Magic
The essence of magic is light
says the puppeteer to me as I peer
through his box of a stage
yet but a shell of trash—
limp pieces of strings,
sleeping snakes of light cords,
tubs of light shades, the puppets
mere swaths of rags.
Life moves only where
there is light, he seems to chant,
invoking magic from his words. In the myth
of creation, God first bid Light with words and Light
burst into rays like wings or so the puppeteer
You can ride on light,
the universe does, speeding and crashing
on taut streams of translucence. I can transform you
into a nymph under these lights,
the puppeteer turns
to me, sensing my longing.
Could I grow into wings if
and vanish in the light? I ask. Or
like my puppets be born
and live if only for a fraction
of light, he answers grinning. I hesitate
but then, step in to his box of a stage among scraps
of life and give in.
Copyright 2006 by Alegria Imperial
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Alegria Imperial's poem "Light as Magic" gracefully explores age-old questions of free will, mortality and faith, through the metaphor of the puppet show. The dialogue between the puppeteer and the narrator can be understood on many levels, but it is fundamentally a poem about trust.
Can the spectator trust the artist enough that she will suspend disbelief and let him turn his "box of a stage" from a "shell of trash" into a cosmos in miniature? She must decide whether to rely more on her skeptical eyes, which see only the unglamorous machinery and "swaths of rags", or on the puppeteer's seductive promises and the longings of her own heart, which beckon her to move from spectator to participant. One could even see this as an example of the tension between scientific and religious approaches to knowledge—the former demanding that the knower remain objective and detached from the known, the latter requiring personal commitment as a precursor to understanding.
This poem also has a romantic dimension, with the puppeteer as the seducer ("I can transform you/into a nymph under these lights,/the puppeteer turns/to me, sensing my longing"). The lady is uncertain, wanting assurances of eternity: "Could I grow into wings if/I wish/ and vanish in the light?" However, her suitor will only promise to make her feel alive as never before. He makes no guarantees as to how long it will last: "Or/like my puppets be born/and live if only for a fraction/of light, he answers grinning."
Similarly, if we read "Light as Magic" as also an allegory of the soul and God (a reading made plausible by Imperial's explicit reference to Genesis 1), the narrator may want a relationship with God but is holding back for fear that she is deceiving herself. It's hard to take the unseen world seriously, when the evidence of sin ("sleeping snakes") and lifeless matter is right before her eyes. She wants a revelation first ("Could I grow into wings"). But the puppeteer responds that this is the world he's made, and the first move is hers to risk.
Certain line breaks in "Light as Magic" emphasize the pivotal moments in this gentle contest of wills. The words "I wish" are set off by themselves in an unusually short line, as if to highlight the fact that this argument is all about the narrator's self-assertion versus submission to the puppeteer. The line break after "Or" toward the end of the poem is like the edge of a cliff. The narrator doesn't know what will happen if she steps off. In the lines "Light/burst into rays like wings or so the puppeteer/imagines", the final word stands by itself to underscore the idea of creation ex nihilo. "Imagining", by itself, contains all things. Imperial's radiant imagery effectively brings this familiar myth to life.
Casting God as a puppeteer suggests a worldview in which human free will is constrained. Yet the poem is all about the narrator's moment of decision. Will she fully participate in life—a life open to the possibility of magic—or will she refuse to step onto the stage? A dazzling future is hinted at in the beautiful lines "You can ride on light,/the universe does, speeding and crashing/on taut streams of translucence." Just as the humble puppeteer's illusions contain a spark of the light that holds the universe together, the narrator has the power to say No to that light. To experience the light, she must become a puppet: "step in to his box of a stage among scraps/of life and give in." Is this giving up free will or becoming truly free? In a sense, it is both, which makes the ending poignant as well as hopeful.
Where could a poem like "Light as Magic" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Writer's Digest Poetry Awards
Postmark Deadline: December 20
Prizes up to $500 for poems 32 lines or less, offered by well-known national magazine for writers
Cecil Hemley Memorial Award
Postmark Deadline: December 23
Members-only award from the Poetry Society of America (we recommend joining) offers $500 for a lyric poem that addresses a philosophical or epistemological concern
Tiferet Writing Contest
Postmark Deadline: December 31
Ecumenical journal of spirituality and the arts offers $750 apiece for poetry, fiction and essays that "help reveal Spirit through the written word"
Wigtown Poetry Prize
Entries must be received by June 7
Literary town in Scotland offers prizes up to 1,500 pounds for the best unpublished poems in English, Scots or Gaelic by authors 16+; no simultaneous submissions
W.B. Yeats Society Annual Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: February 1
$250 award for unpublished poems includes invitation to ceremony at the elegant, prestigious National Arts Club in NYC in April
This poem and critique appeared in the December 2006 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques