photos & an experimental essay
by Amee Nassrene Broumand
It’s raining at the moment. Calling it rain might suggest a downpour or perhaps a steadiness of purpose, but this rain is too ambivalent for any of that relative cheeriness. This is slacker rain. This rain drizzles on and off all day, turning the landscape into a listless void. It’s hard to even tell the color of the light in such rain—is it grey, or is it a lurid shade of green?
I’ve never been sure, yet I know it well: as I child I stared out of myriad windows into this rain—into the glistening trees that slouched with waterlogged branches—and tried to imagine the sun. It didn’t work, of course; the rain had seeped into my mental eye. Instead of sunlight, the inside of my skull grew lush with moss. Forests sprang up, haunted by arboriform spirits and carnivorous umbrella monsters. Predatory ferns infected my temporal lobes and burst outwards in Medusa-like fronds, marking me as forever coiled, an absurd Beardsleyan grotesque.
The sun is out of reach.
Insidious, the famous Pacific Northwest drizzle comes now, in the dark time of the year, to make the darkness darker, stealing and perverting the sun, twisting it into a decadent half-light worthy of Baudelaire or Huysmans—or Odilon Redon. It lures the worms out of the earth to drown in puddles, their pinkness fading into incandescent mush. It obviates the need for sunset: hours before dusk, the rainlight infiltrates the day, turning afternoon into another kind of night.
This light welcomes the ones with malformed wings.
The spiders descend when it rains. But where are they hiding? I peer around my apartment—cluttered as it is with books and discarded poems—and find my mind darting and weaving like a spider, seeking sacred shadows in which to prey. There are many nooks that beckon, many misshapen corners in this drafty brick building, many gaps between the hardwood and the wainscoting. Surely there are spiders here, cunning spiders, planning spiders—spiders planning to pounce in the wee small hours and whisper horrific suggestions into my ear.
Have you ever started awake with a craving for smoked Gouda? That’s the work of spiders for sure. Or sublimation.
I’m something of a connoisseur of light. Maybe it’s the thirty years I’ve spent fiddling around with cameras, or maybe it’s that all of the good connoisseur positions—like Bartleby’s Better-than-Cheddar Cheesemaster—have already been taken, but I have distinct preferences when it comes to the kind and quality of light. The blinding white noonlight of midsummer does nothing for me; such light strikes me as impassive to the point of cruelty. If there’s such a thing as evil light, it’s this harsh eremic brightness (evil especially for the Norwegians in my family, who are completely transparent and can only be seen on gloomy days, when they appear as columns of mist tangled in Yggdrasil branches).
What I love—what I treasure—is light which is both eerie and vibrant. Violet thunderlight. Green tornadolight. Rich amber autumnlight that paints the world with crowshaped shadows and shadowshaped crows.
Such light makes up for the lack of
in my life.
Eclipselight is the true pinnacle, of course. I’d heard wondrous stories of its unparalleled argent color, so on the morning of 21 August 2017 I braved an early morning bus trip from Portland (Oregon) to Salem (also Oregon) to watch the total eclipse. Yes, I’m a night person. No, I wasn’t awake. I was jittery, restive, and unrested: traffic predictions had been dire, so I’d spent the night wondering if I’d be bus-trapped in the middle of the freeway during the dark spell. I could either stay in Portland and watch the partial eclipse, or get on the bus and risk missing the whole shebang. Once on the bus there was little I could do to prevent such a scenario, so I calmed myself by watching lonely power lines arc across the wild and unkempt ground; the massive structures holding them aloft were shaped like hunched ogres. The ogres gleamed in the morning light, waiting for the great shadow.
The bus was significantly delayed, yet I arrived in Salem shortly before first contact. I made my way from the Greyhound station over to the grounds of the Oregon State Capitol, where I found an empty patch of cement beside a wall and settled down to watch the show. Although there were viewing groups within earshot, there were only two or three other people within eyeshot, which pleased me. I’d been worried that Salem would turn out to be one massive party—Eclipsestock ’17, if you will—and had despaired of finding a bit of quiet. For me, being in a crowd is like eating deviled eggs: I have to be in the right mood, otherwise it’s downright nauseating. At best I can only stomach small portions.
As it was, the nearest creature to me was a spider—all tumbled and tangled in its own legs—that had wilted behind me at the base of the capitol wall. It reminded me of those wall-crawling octopus toys that I’d played with for a couple of minutes back in the eighties. The idea was to throw the octopus at a wall and watch it stumble down for a few inches before it crumpled onto the floor and got all fuzzy with dust. They were downright depressing toys, really, and quite serious about philosophy: when you exist simply to tumble down walls all day, it’s hard not to take up Existentialism, even if you’re just a garish bit of plastic.
Normally I don’t turn my back to spiders, however this one looked completely conked out. I wasn’t too worried that it would sneak onto my shoulder or suddenly morph into a wall-shocked octopus and start reciting Sartre. The eclipse had started, so I fitted my lens with its cardboard sun-condom and busied myself taking photos.
I’ve seen partial eclipses before, so the whole Pac-Man aspect was nothing new, except that this time Pac-Man’s mouth was becoming abnormally large and cavernous, as though he were turning inside out.
A woman walked past the wall, paused to put on her eclipse glasses, and announced to her companion, It’s definitely much smaller now than the last time I looked.
Time moved rapidly; totality approached. The light turned silvery pink and flat. Insanely flat. The effect was claustrophobic—there seemed to be less room, less air—and bore little resemblance to mundane twilight; it was as if the unseen moon were vacuuming up the third dimension. Geometry went mad and forgot about keeping up appearances, letting the earth become steamrolled salmon. Time quivered. A tsunami of silent mercury poured over the world.
The last curved thread of sunlight vanished. The sun went dark.
I thought I was prepared; I wasn’t. The sight awoke nameless polyphonic emotions from another time, from another realm of being.
I was overwhelmed. Afterwards, while trying to understand my reaction, this is what I thought: During totality we become children gaping helplessly at the apparent death of our mother, our life-giving star. In times of light, civilization masks the bond we have with the sun. But when the sun goes dark, we know the truth—
the sun owns us from the inside out.
A ring of white fire blazed in the uncanny sky, gleaming like a stylized black hole. Rubies bejeweled the rim of the moon. Time seemed no longer linear, but condensed into a drop, as though all of the moments were happening simultaneously. A blackened helicopter flew under the blotted sun; drumbeats pounded. The present dissolved into the prehistoric past—into a time before language—while haunted by the future.
To exist for more than a second under the weight of such awe seemed impossible.
But it wasn’t impossible; I was doing it. I kept snapping photos like the trained ape that I am, even as reality cracked open and the sol-killing demon of infinity peered out with a few of her infinite heads. She was ghastly. I felt crumpled and in danger of rambling on about the horror of chestnut trees. Not again! I said to the spider, but the spider was incapable of a response. It had broken for the last time.
Spiders don’t shine when they explode, they’re much too small.
* * * * *
After the eclipse I’d had enough of the sun for a while, but it wasn’t done with me. That was because of the fire.
Over an exceptionally hot and dry Labor Day weekend, a psychopathic jackass from my hometown shot off fireworks in the nearby Columbia River Gorge; he started a wildfire that became a 3,000 acre inferno within hours, stranding hikers and threatening Oregon’s beloved Multnomah Falls, with its historic lodge.
An olivine-lit world of misty heights and roaring waters, the Gorge is my place of dreams, site of resonant childhood wonders and horrors. The Gorge is like family to me. That first night of the fire I was glued to my computer, obsessively scanning the updates in real time, my whole body clenched.
My mind was filled with flames.
Within three days the fire had blossomed into a 20,000 acre dragon-spawned hell and was still growing, causing evacuations in several towns and eventually spreading over more than 48,000 acres.
The Eagle Creek Fire, as it was known, cast a disheartening and dystopian spell across Portland. The sky turned a dirty white. Papery ash fell across the city, smudging every twig and sprig of green. A turgid grey heat predominated. For days the air stunk of smoke and was painful to breathe. People were advised to stay indoors. The moon grew bleary and bloated with haze, becoming an overripe pumpkin. And the sun? The sun morphed into a depressed ghost hugging the ecliptic.
I’d never seen such an ill-looking sun. It was so weak that I could view it directly.
In the afternoons it would grow angry, a choked red tomato
and then it would faint, blanching pink and paler until it became one with the livid sky.
This was no fiery star, but a faded Pepto-Bismol tablet dissolving in a churning grey stomach. It was pathetic to behold, and more than a little grotesque.
So much for eclipse magnificence.
The critters outside of my window were so disgusted that they came inside. One jumping spider took up residence on the blinds during the heat of the day, crouching upside down with its forelegs outstretched as if in supplication. I let it stay; I didn’t have the heart to boot it out into the nasty ash. Or squish it. I hate squashing spiders yet, when I find some behemoth of a people-chomping arachnid prancing about my home, I find that heartless, decisive action is best. That is, I usually cower for a while at the end of a broom before making the coup de grȃce (which inevitably involves cockatoo shrieks and a patented petunia-pantaloon stamping dance).
But things have changed since I saw the spider at the wall.
The other day there was a minute jumping spider—no bigger than the crescent of a pinkie—scampering around on my ceiling. Instead of reaching for the broom, I pondered how to rescue it without knocking it down or chasing it to kingdom come. My ceilings are abnormally high, and since I’m comfortably under eight feet tall, standing on a chair does nothing.
Eventually the spider began to explore the wall in a downwards fashion. I grabbed a page of poems and hopped upon a chair, hoping to trick the spider into crawling onto the paper. Alas, the spider was already bored and heading back up the wall. No, come back! I cried, trying to get its attention (I’m nothing if not absurd). Although the spider was out of reach above me, I waved the page underneath it as if to a kitten in the window of a burning building.
And the spider saw me. It turned around, looked at the poems, and leaped gracefully and precisely onto the page.
* * * * *
Amee Nassrene Broumand has poetry in Word Riot, Sundog Lit, A-Minor Magazine, Rivet, Windfall, & elsewhere. The daughter of an Iranian-immigrant father and a Norwegian-American mother, she was born near Los Angeles and homeschooled in Vancouver, Washington. She has a B.A. in Philosophy & English from Boise State University, where she tutored Logic for six semesters. An avid photographer, she currently lives in Portland, Oregon & blogs for Burning House Press. She has been known to rapidly devour smoked Gouda. Find her on Twitter @AmeeBroumand.