Sun and Sunlight
( A Little History of Light and Color)


Sun and fog on the Ridge


Note: I spent more than 3 months writing this poem, originally.  I have continued pecking away at it for some years now. But, for me, it is unusual that I worked steadily on a poem for this long. I wanted to write a little history of ideas about color in addition to writing a little history of my own rather complex and changing relationship theories of color. Moreover I wanted the poem to be autobiographical. I am an artist after all and I have had a long relationship to thinking about color.  In my early days  I watched the sun make rainbows on my eyelashes. I learned the Newtonian view of color in school, like everyone does. Later I studied the color theory of Plato, Dante, Newton, Goethe or Kandinsky up through 1980's, abandoning many of these theories after 1990 or so. Just as Erasmus rejected the ideas of Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite, I too rejected metaphysical ideas of color. In the 1990's I finally came to understand that metaphysical ideas of color are delusionsal,  and returned to the actual responses of my childhood, when I celebrated color as a fact of the wonder of existence. I have thought about color for many years. But more than that, as is evident in my art, I love color deeply.  It is a colored universe we live in, primarily, and not the colorless grey world invented by the mathematicians. We live an an earth that has evoloved over millions of years and color and light are deeply enmeshed in our evolution.  Poetry has largely ignoried this vast subject. here i try ot talk about it.
      Its not an easy task to try to speak of all this in one poem. To talk about such subjects in a poetic form, some have said, is better in an essay. There may be truth to that. The poem was written accompanied by many pages of commentary in August and September
2003. But for now I am not including the commentary here, just this note. One of the objects of this poem was to go beyond the romantic lyric, which is very confining, and overlap autobiography, lyrical utterance and philosophical inquiry.


This is an important poem for me for several reasons. First it helped me realize that for some years already I had been writing poetry largely free of evocations of romantic or illuminated moments, "pure experiences" or epiphanies. I did not want to write poems that are "revelations". Jack Hirschman once said to me that poems must "reveal" and not merely "tell". I don't agree with him. I do not wish my poems to be at the mercy of some deep unconscious god or "self" that only the privileged can access. The whole notion of "revelation" is suspect for its religious overtones. In addition, it seems highly questionable that relgious automatic, or surrealist writing has some special door open to the hidden truth.  I don't think there is any hidden world behind this world. The idea of a "supernatural" reality seems absurd and false. NBothing is beyond nature.

I wanted to write about actual poetic experiences and their history in my life. I gave up the romantic or gnostic tradition in poetry, which tended to make poetry as sort of secular religion of everyday life, with the poet trying to access the hidden 'mind of the times'  of "zietgiest", by deranging the senses or otherwise trying to access the 'other', within him or herself. I have been writing a new kind of poetry, not born of what I learned from Hirschman or any other poet. I have merely tried to write out of my actual concerns, without any spiritual pretense, without efforts to be sublime, romantic, mythical, or in any way romantic. I am interested in a poetry that addresses the poetic insights that lead us to science. Poetry should be be afraid of the ordinary and prosaic. It ought to be able to tell simple stories too and explain thoughts and feelings, even philosophical ideas, that might not be exalted or ecstatic.

 I am not writing a "inhumanist" poetry like Jeffers, either, but a humanist poetry, or rather a humanist poetry grounded in the earth and not the unconscious or a metaphysical 'other'. Nor am I writing Gnostic or "prophetic" poems like Ginsberg or Hirschman. There are ecstasies in the poem that follows, true, but they are not world denying mystical ideas, nor inflated by gnosticism. They are far from the subjective idealism of Rainer Maria Rilke or Wallace Stevens.



Indeed, this poem is something of a resume various reasons why I rejected mysticism. I catalogue my disappointment in Niffari, Dionysius the Areopogite, Dogen and St. John.  Metaphysical theories of color denigrate color as inferior to white light. This is absurd, since light and color are not different nor is one higher than the other, and nor for that matter, is the invisible spectrum any less or more significant than the visible spectrum. The five colors do not make mean's eyes blind, and both Rumi and Lao Tzu are mistaken in this regard.

       In the end, light is not symbolic, and no one, and no institution, owns its beauty. There is unfortunately no history of light and how it has been exploited by this or that system of power and knowledge. Even science has exploited light in awful ways, as in the atom bomb, which basically is a exploitation of the power that fuels the sun. religion before science used light symbolism to subject the peasant masses to the aristocracy. My view of color is scientific, but still reserves the mystery of light as

 an opening for individuals to appreciate the value of having an existence on earth. This poem is an attempt to regain the right to be free of ideological powers and to be an ordinary man who celebrates a multicolored earth brilliant and many hued. It is an opened ended poem too, because it suggests that it takes a life time, or many life times to learn to appreciate the world of color and sense that religions denigrated for millennia. The poem is a ode to existence and to the rainbow that revolves at the moving horizon of color that rides around the earth at sunset, 24 hours a day.
     This poem explores complex thoughts and self regrets,  stories of how I changed my mind and learned from my experiences.  Poetry should not exempt itself form critical thinking either. Why not write about history and ideas, and how the mind can learn to see the world in a new and exciting way that denies such tired and archaic giants as Plato or Dante. I came to experience color as a joy of life without mediation from churches or institutions who have tried to steal light and color as symbols of their power: that is what this poem is about. It is a refusal of traditional and spiritual ideas about color. It does not deny Newtonian ideas, but claims Newton's  notions were extremely
limited. Light is not religious, not transcendental. I want to take light back from those who stole it.
I want to give it back to the trees and the eyes of animals.
    The world of color and sense that Rumi denied is the only world that there is and this world is all that we have. Plato, Aquinas. Lao Tzu, Rumi and other mystics were mistaken. Essence does not precede existence. Existence is all there is. Essences are imaginary fictions. Newton was not right either. The world is not a black and white system of mathematical grids. Color is not merely a superficial reflection of the light bouncing off of neutrally  colored objects. Newton's universe is gray. Existence is not gray.

 Color is about the wonder of existing, the amazement of being, the fact of living in a universe of light and hue and learning to love, honor and preserve this world  and all the beings in it is therefore the main purpose of our lives.  Honoring color is honoring life.
    That is what this poem is trying to talk about, as best it can.


Sun And Sunlight
(for  my daughter,)

The sun is an exploding tumult,
a roaring sea of furious fire
sending out huge loops, solar flares,
luminous daggers curving into dark space---
from 93 million miles away
the invisible spectrum illumines our aurora borealis,
and delicate curtains
dance in diaphanous waves:
midnight sheers of rainbows
rippling against the Milky Way.
We exist only because of the sun,
yet know one knows why the sun exists.
Light is the origin of everything that is visible,
or more exactly,
for want of light nothing would be visible;
or more exactly
there'd be no one to see anything that might be visible.
There is no knowing without light,
no life, no self or other,
but, yet, light itself  is not well known.

How do I write a history of something so ubiquitous
yet whose nature is not well understood?
Everything depends on it yet no one knows just what it is.

when light shines on everyone
and neither favors or denies anyone
it is odd that no one has yet written
a fair history of light and color.
The light of the sun favors the smallest plankton
as much as the blue whale--
miles of plankton,
hanging like green curtains under the sea---
Sperm Whales and Giant Squid
swimming through the emerald silences---
and the curtains rising and lowering every day
as the sun ascends and descends....
In the deep sea,  blue or pink lights blink,
blinding floods of green phosphor,
hidden geodes of spectrum's splendor----
---the light of the sun on shinning mountains
sea-twilight rising up on whitened crystals
just as the valleys glow blue
in the shadow of sapphire mountains----
Then in the kelp forests plants with billions of leaves
holding unimaginable amounts of light.

To the sun we owe our cells
blood red like the earth's own burnt adobe
spiral currents of blood  through our heart valves
like lava soup sliding down fountains of fire,
the volcano's boiling dry land up into the beginning of life.
The human heart is an grasp of of sunlight, fist of being,
clutching and pumping mysterious red plasma.

Light grains travel through atoms
like wind through fields of wheat---
waves of wind light blow through the prairie grasses.

when I look at chameleon skin this closely,
 ---Colored wheels within colored wheels turning:---
or see the silk of ultramarine skink tails, I grasp that
human hierarchies are a lie against the equality of light.
Light is the luminious eye of fairness.
Maybe that is why there is no good history of light---
most histories have falsified nature
and favored cruel  social ladders,
whereas the sun gives freely to everyone.
The history of the sun encompasses all of evolution and beyond.
How can tell that story?

Put this more simply; prose-poetically:
a sunny generosity is not good for business:
greed likes putting people down
in darkness and toil---
and those who need power are possessive and intolerant
and would deny others unmolested ease of living.
Under the generous California sun
Indians had a relatively good
and easy life between the Tule Reeds
and the Live Oaks covered in Acorns.
These good people, falsely accused of being 'lazy savages'
were largely wiped out by darkly dressed priests---
businessmen who claimed that all good light and life
was either in a Black Book or in the Bank.
I know, that if they could,  the corporate misers
would charge you for breathing and extract a tax
on the seeing of your eyes.
They will force you to pay for water,
and what price, sunlight?
These trolls perch on the bridge of being
ready to exact a toll for light---
that must be why the churches charged for sins
the price of a future payment in light
or darkness-- this was moral blackmail of being
"saved or damned".
"The wages of sin are death" the priest would pound
with his fist on the lectern.
The priest and the bankers
want you to sign their papers
 to insure your redemption.
as if your life were merely on loan
from a divine Insurance company---
Obviously, don't sign or trust these divine Con-man.
That is why I don't go in churches anymore
even though I once loved Byzantine resplendence
and the  mosaics of golden domes
arched above a diamond chalice.
I realized at last that the light
that the churches would charge me for was stolen light,
sunshine sold it as luminous fakery.
These thieves stole light as a metaphor,
dressed it up as gold furniture and pocket watches,
pyramid tops and virgins
when actually
real light was abundantly free to everyone
just outside the church doors.

I believed all the tall tales for a while
until I realized that most of the histories
and philosophies of light are biased
and attempt to seize light for one sect,
religion or Pharaoh.
The Egyptian RA depended on slaves,
carved brown muscles carrying desert stones
whipped under the impossible heat
for the Pyramid of Khufu.
Knarled hands and an early death
was the price French peasants paid
for Louis the 14th's golden garments.
The Sun King had a wedding cake smile
that dripped with the blood of the poor.
The Sun Priests atop the Aztec pyramids
cut out our beating hearts as the price of light.
We were made slaves to a calendar.
I resisted the power of what the Masters of Light
claimed to know.
I grew weary of their temples, fake crystals,
phony towers of the Intellect,
beautiful lies in myths and religions
and I realized:
No one owns light
no one owns the sun.

Sunrise over the Creek


So then, given that the history of light and color
is patterned with blood, delusions and projections,
I ask both myself and the universe,
what can I know about light and color,
since, in the past,
I have fallen for or endorsed many of these illusions myself?
I wrote my first little history of light and color
and finished it on Aug 20th 1983, .
I remember the date because it was the day my stepfather died,
and I liked him and dedicated it to him.
His name was Dave Davis.
He was a traveling scissors doctor
who went from town to town,
fabric store to fabric store
where women sought his services to help them
make curtains and colorful clothes.
He loved this job.
He and I had painted my mother's red house together,
during the months I meditated on the history of color.
I was learning to weave many colored yarns at that time,
restoring oriental carpets.
My mind was dyed with vegetable blood,
purple saps, crimson roots, ochre and topaz,
powdered pearl
hued minerals, earthtones,
bone blues and starbright yellows
skeins of many colors, twined yarns, woolen prisms
a rainbow of wools hung on my wall
next to my needles and my bee's waxed threads.
Dave was strangely happy and hallucinating
the day before he died
and he told me he
saw a clown smiling at him,
which appeared out of the hospital wall.
Yes, I should have known,
the secret of color
is not to be found in the high flown
metaphysics of "disembodied light",
as propounded by otherworldly Plotinus,
Ibn Arabi or Jesus
but rather
the secret of color is in
the colors of a clown's costume
making a dying man smile.
I wish I could tell my step-father,
"Look, Dave,
I understand something now,
you and the clown were right
it is life in the moment that matters"
Now that I am old too, I love children and rainbow kites.
Sometimes it takes years to learn the obvious.

The history of color and light is not black and white.
Blake and Goethe didn't like Isaac Newton
and his theory of color, for instance.
That is understandable given that both
Blake and Goethe had some notion
of what it means to look into the iridescent eyes
of the spread tail-feathers of  mating Peacocks.
Goethe thought of his theory of color ( the Farbenlere)
as a Seven Colored Princess
and he imagined that Newton, the mean, dark prince,
in Goethe's eyes
had dragged his beloved Princess into a cave
or a dungeon, to study her rainbows in a damp, black room.
A delightful story,
but I'm not sure Newton was as bad as all that.
It is true that the public Newton and his theories of color
are reductionist, which means that they might be useful as spectroscopy
-- meaning that if you happen to want to exploit
 the minerals of distant planets or stars---
or go prospecting for some extraterrestrial profits---
Newton's theory of color is just the thing for you.
But honestly, there is beauty in Newton's spare prisms
casting rainbows on darkened walls.
There is more to the theory than its ill use.
It is true that Isaac was paranoid, and taht he was
Master of the Mint of England, lion of money
and friend to slave traders.
But the private Newton was a different story.
He was a confused eccentric,
not much different than you or me
dabbling away at a strange, but hopeful alchemy
and dreaming of the beloved's eyes,
iridescent as Peacock feathers.
We are all reaching for Pebbles on the shore of truth.

Seeking the Secret of Color

I have always been grateful for a world of colorful eccentrics.
Once I preferred
Goethe's metamorphic red flowers
and Blake's childlike wings of imagination---
his colored verses and pages dipped in rainbows---,
but now I see Newton's simple prisms,
shine an aurora of colors beyond
all the gold coins minted in England.
Science begins in beauty of vision
and beauty is multicolored.
All there is is our planet, the face of earth and our sky.
There are no gods. Blake, Goethe were
 wrong and right in their own ways
and Newton's yellow covered Opticks is glass of clear
Color comes from the sun shinning though our atmosp
Flowers are the fruition of the fact of intelligent cells
responding to the luminous facts of existence.
I begin in the simplicity of light falling on earth.
There is no beyond the real and actual color of a planet
floating alone 2 million light eyras form Andromeda.


So then,
when I gave up the 'Uncreated Light'
I became blind to the next world
and started to see this one.
The global facts large landscaeps
of Deltas and Rivers, Obsidian plains and Ocean Trenches
trumped the delusions of metaphysics.
I realized Lao Tzu and Rumi were mistaken
The five colors do not "make men eye's blind"
as the Tao Te Ching and the Mathnavi had said.

I will not denigrate women, as they did,
as being merely about “color and scent” as Rumi said.
No more longing for transcendent fictions,
male dreams of glory and exclusion.
I saw that "Mythic Enclosures", as I called them, is what make people’s eyes blind.
Religion is willful delusion.

When I gave up "divine visions"
I realized I needed better glass
I have better glasses now
and try to see as best I can,
even when sea salt prays my lenses at sunset.
Things I once believed, I believe no longer,
and things I once shunned I now accept.
Experience changed my mind.
I leave behind some of my old favorites
like Johann Scotus Erigena,
who was almost my Irish grandfather,
Ibn Arabi and the misnamed Dionysius the "Areopagite" --
the 4th or 5th century Byzantine thinker
who taught me longing for other-worldly crystal,
Dante, and his trinity
of interlocking colored circles
at the end of the Divine Comedy;
Kukai,and lovely Rumi, 
a friend of my failed romances,
Nagarjuna and the strange negations of
night-bright and hidden-faced Niffari,
the priest of invisibility:
I give up these and many other obscure elitists
of hidden lights: symbols in mirrors
twisters of antinomial knots;
Haters of earth, misogynists.
And when I leave their gods behind
I cover over their fictive mirrors with black cloth
and put their books up on the shelf
for a reference I am unlikely to need
and now mountains are not walking upside down
 in the rivers that stand up flowing onto their heads---
and I smile a little at the games that
all these word-jokers like Dogen liked to play.
If you want a good laugh
just look down the aisle at the rows of portraits of saints
all lined up like portraits of the corporate founders
in a law office, in a drawing by a Honore Daumier.
Never mind the magicians of power and aesthetic fireworks
that dazzle you into belief in delusions:
never mind to Chartres windows and
The multi-colored marbles of Athena's statue
Ravenna and Hagia Sophia:
nevermind the colored symmetry of Isphahan or Fez:
Color is not metaphysical or symbolic.
I learned the hard way that I have to look for myself.
A little bit of abalone shell among all the various pebbles
strewn where the sea-water washes up on the beach
is enough of a miracle for me.
Life is not a dream.
Color is the joy of existing
and this existence is all there is.

I  realize that so many times I have been wrong,
and proved myself wrong, and in the end the light still shines on me
and I still wake up in dreams of vivid color and
still nature opens her many colored book into my eyes
how else was I to learn if I made no mistakes?---
the water still falls in the waterfall
and the birds are flying
and you can always come back to the simple truth
right in front of you.
I hold on to the multi-colored world worth holding on to
this intimate air around the flower where the bee loves to hover
and I know little except this sense of existence,
the light on the leaf here, the light on my hands,
the light on the dirt road beside me where I walk---
this world that glows in color and light around the edges of my eyes
this space in which the colors of my heart feels the warmth of a life worth living.


the way the sun holds itself in the glass of my glasses---
this white star glowing gold on the silver sheen of limitless space
or given candlelight in the wine glass,  or a red flare of sunset glowing,
or dawn light through the window shinning through the jar of honey,
or how the sunlight in the top of the wave looks
as the wave breaks into emerald ----
or given  the morning when all is clear and my childhood is
blazoned with a white California sun,
and I looked up into the ecstatic sky and understood
that adults have made a mess of the world
and they have forgotten the obvious meaning of sunlight---
and, long ago, that was a day of real seeing,
that was the way I knew then and know still
that the world
is a mirror of itself that needs no mirrors,
it does not need gods for its glory---
----that it has no reflections
that it does not refer to anything beyond
or outside itself, and that all the fancy language,
abstract entities, words and gods are in some sense delusions----
Yes.... once I forgot the mirroring---
once I stopped looking beyond death---
stopped looking at the mirrors and reflections
gave up metaphysics and Marxist dialectic
and started looking at the things themselves
life has been simple and the world is its own praise
and praise is a form of knowledge, after all,
and light is its own amazement in its simple glowing.

Given, then,

that sky is sky and not a metaphor for imaginary "heavens"
and my mind sees the light in the clouds
enveloped in infinite horizons of colors,
I begin to understand that the sky is a prism that turns with the earth
and this Spherical Spectrum
of being-now-becoming is what we all are
and the translucent rainbow of of the turning globe of the sky
is kin of my own seeing
---that the way the earth turns in a spherical colored prism over my head
turning everyday as the day slides in space from morning till night--
that this turning sphere of color is kin of my own seeing---
kin of my eyes looking into the meaning of light and space,
simple as sand grains and the lonely light of things
and this makes me realize that the
companionable magic of the world
is so lovely I can hardly say what lovely is.


Spring Twilight

So then,
Given that St John's city of Invisible Light
and Plato's vision of colorless essences,
were good fairy tales, curious fantasies,
dreams of power and glory
that served some empire builders,
it is time to give up these dreams of intellectual empire
and come down to the lovely earth.
I realize now that color is not
"a metaphor for the Lightless Light" as I once said.
I was wrong and I find some joy in admitting it.
The light that has glowed inside my chest since childhood
must be the same light that I have seen light up
the eyes of Seals in the sea
or the eyes of Marmots sitting up alert on rocks.
It is the light that warms the fur of chipmunks
the light in Louis Armstrong's trumpet----
the light of being that lights up the plant Anemone
also lights up the sea Anemone,
glowing in its translucent green tentacles.
The light that lives in me illuminates plants
and I am not better than Armadilloes,
or multicolored fish swimming in a school
beneath the luminous surface of the sea.

There is me and you and the sea and the birds
and the birds of many colored feathers are flying
and the fish are bright lamps of primary colors
and all of us belong to the
community of a rainbow-world
and all of us are beings that love light.

Given that I realize that neither the mind
nor nature is an empty void
nor is there an invisible spiritual plenitude
or "imaginal" world
and that Dogen, Milarepa and St. John made some nice myths
about mind and light
but that reality is just not like that---
I am at last
free to wonder at the transparence of the veil of the air,
and to love air and light itself,
and to love the way light through water
spreads the crystal edge of liquidity---
and the way mist at twilight gathers
the greening hints of lilac roses
or all those mystic evenings where
the sun sank into a rainbow sky
and the rainbow wrapped itself into my mind,
and I know the warm light that I feel in my body
is the same warmth that lights up colors in the sky---
and the wonder of colored space in the sky
is the reason why my eyes are round
and that is why I love this world and abjure religions and
beliefs that ask me to give up attachment to the world.
I know longer love death or the chimerical fictions that arise
out of the question 'what is beyond death?'.
I love this world and the light falling on the edges of my fingers
the into the light of my wife's green eyes,
I love this life and hope for more time ---
and I hope---
for the life and time of  my children's eyes
and my children's children's eyes
and may we all have many years
of grateful seeings and intimate embraces
and endless sand grains, minute and multi-colored jewels
falling toward the final days
of my seeing and your seeing
and the gathering community of seeings
glowing out of a wonderful earth
where being is rainbow.


Sun setting through Pines

Oh this abalone inscape that turns seashells glistening
into the clarity of my own subjective mind---
and the sudden realization that this subjectivity is objective---
this being that looks out from existing things---
this light inside me that also looks at me from the outside---
and it is this clear light precisely--
that I love in the falling water drop
and how it bends the light on the edge of itself
like a round mirror of globed silver
and the world is reflected in it, just as sunrise in a puddle,
by the side of the road, holds the morning light.
And the inside of the outside holds me
in the meaning of the green that grows in plants
and tells me how the tree feels its way into the blue
and it glows along the edge of the lilac cloud,
awash in the silver satin of morning light,
sheer as silken rains falling through
the grey and infinite silence.
Light glows in the humility of what seashells hold
and in the way flowers open at dawn,
and when lightning strikes at night,
it illuminates the flowers in a burst of hidden color
that were waiting all the while for your eyes.

Just as slices of liquid sunlight live interior
within the Orange,
the light that lives in me indwells a jewel of being,
a flowering chroma,
and this prismatic existence casts its rainbow inside
my heart and mind as light shifts inside the facets
of a carnival kaleidoscope..

The color of being is rainbow,
and I learned this from my dying step-father Dave
and the clown he saw on his last day of life.
So maybe this poem could be my small contribution
to a little history of color and light.


I dedicate this to Dave,  20
years after his death and to my  daughter
soon to be born.


this dedication written in Aug, 2003, still working on it, Oct. 2007.




Spring Thaw (detail)





Copyright © 2003-07 Mark Koslow. All Rights Reserved.