(after Charles Baudelaire)
Through this doubled pane, the city spreads before me like a jeweled necklace. Strings of lights delineate throughways. Pinpoints of light shunt the length of them, lives encased in molded squares of metal that accelerate alongside dotted lines. Constellations of fixed lights – an electronic Milky Way – wink in a haze of automobile fumes, steam rising from the river, rotting detritus, dust filtering out through industrial chimneys.
When I look around my neighbourhood in these so-called wee hours, I see rectangles of variously shaded yellow or blue light suspended among the shadows. Across the street, framed in a silhouette of century-old moulding, I see under a single incandescent bulb a row of kitchen cabinets. Occasionally the penumbra of a body slides over them; a hand reaches up, opens a cupboard, takes down a bottle of whiskey from several others on the shelf. The hand is gnarled; probably belongs to an elderly man, although man or woman I cannot tell for sure. Several other rectangles glow with a bluish, spectral hue: I imagine other solitudes crouching before television or computer screens, gazing hypnotically or tapping out hasty greetings and farewells, sending digital self-portraits around the world.
Across the ocean of roofs I see a middle-aged woman, her face already lined, who rarely if ever goes out. Often, as now, she slouches motionless in front of a television. Awash in its pale, shifting light, her stillness suggests loneliness; I can only imagine her frown: out of that imaginary frown, out of practically nothing at all I have made up this woman’s story, or rather legend, and sometimes I tell it to myself and my eyes water; but I do not weep. Perhaps my compassion – could this be called compassion? – is anesthetized by her own ceaseless foray into distraction. Every one of these rectangles, dark or illuminated, is the dramatic stage of a life or lives lived; or the pain of lives anaesthetizing themselves to their pain. Perhaps in one of these casements, someone is observing my square – dimly illuminated by this screen on which I write – and thinking: there is an oblivious one, a little life, unaware of all others! Yet imagining these lives, even the one observing mine – hasn’t it helped me to see my own, to feel that I am, what I am? Yet what I feel is emptiness: I am but one open eye among many eyes in this insect colony that is the city.