Thomas Merton wrote, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” I feel like this sentiment is especially potent when the literary and visual arts intermingle. Elizabeth Spires employs aspects of ekphrastic poetry as well as persona poetry in order to both lose and find herself in this imaginative poem. Inspired, possibly, by Edward Hopper’s paintings of lighthouses, the poet becomes a lighthouse in order to explore her internal musings and identity in the world. She writes in the final stanza, “On clear days/I seem to go on forever. But secretly I wonder,/ What matters? And a voice (within or without?)/ answers, The light. Only the light.” I appreciate the imagery and personal reflections within this poem that are enlivened by the perspective of this solitary and complicated structure.
“Self Portrait as a Lighthouse,” by Elizabeth Spires
All his lighthouses are self-portraits….
————Jo Hopper on Edward Hopper
Darkness. Darkness & a wild crashing & smashing
of waves on the rocks below. My light swinging
round & round—shining for a split second
on shards of rocky coast & a vast oily blackness
ready to swallow small craft & large.
I preside over this. Inside it is dry.
Iron stairs spiral up & up to where a keeper lives,
a keeper who prefers solitude to speaking,
who wordlessly goes up & down
how many times each night, how many times?
Days, too, it is rarely calm.
Seabirds fly round me & the wind blows.
The terrible wind that screeches & screams
until I think I cannot bear it for a moment longer.
But do. If I could steady the light & stop it.
If every circling thing would be quiet
for a while & let me collect myself.
If the windy whirling world would stop.
If. If. And if. But it cannot.
I should not be saying this. I should not.
I stand so straight & tall. On clear days
I seem to go on forever. But secretly I wonder,
What matters? And a voice (within or without?)
answers, The light. Only the light.
So I shall go on trying to see myself
as you see me: a pretty lighthouse framed
against the bluest sky. Encircled by
the green green grass, a few tufts of flowers.
White seabirds flying round & round me.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Elizabeth Spires
Elizabeth Spires is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently Now the Green Blade Rises and The Wave-Maker (both from Norton), and six books for children, including The Mouse of Amherst and I Heard God Talking to Me: William Edmondson and his Stone Carvings (both from Farrar, Straus & Giroux). She lives in Baltimore and is a professor of English at Goucher College .