“Penumbra” by Marvin Artis

Marvin Artis


She asked if I could see it. I suggested she look
for herself. It’s not possible, she said. I’m too old.
I’ve lost my flexibility. Can you see it? she asked again.
I lied and said I couldn’t. But there it was,
in her penumbra, a term I discovered while reading
a case in law school where a Supreme Court justice
declared that the hallowed, American right to privacy
wasn’t explicitly in the Constitution but in the penumbra
of the Bill of Rights. He misused the word. Penumbra means
the dark part of a shadow, a place of partial light.

I won’t reveal what she wanted me to see. It’s private.
What matters is that everyone has penumbras.
No person is a light source. We, the people, are not luminous.
We are not the sun, not even a beautifully lit candelabra.
Light doesn’t pass through us. No one is a clean glass
of spring water reflecting the morning sun. In low light,
our dense bodies block light and create shadows.

I didn’t like lying, but there wasn’t enough light to see clearly.
More than that, I didn’t want to argue about what I did see.
Every argument I’ve ever had was a debate about the existence
or non-existence of something. When everything can be seen,
there is nothing to argue about. Much of the time, I’m in low light
with my shadow companion and in communion with others
and their shadows, like our ancestors, warming themselves
and admiring each other around a dancing fire in the gloaming.
Half our lives are spent in the night and another portion
in the dim sun of cloudy days. We, the people, are used to low light
and the struggle to find things in it, which reminds me of those times
when I would rummage in my childhood bedroom, in a rush to find
something, too unaware and too used to the dark to turn on a lamp
or raise a window shade, as my mother would pass by, chuckle,
then hit the light switch, without saying a word.

from Rattle #61, Fall 2018
Tribute to First Publication


Marvin Artis: “One of the things I’m most interested in, in poetry, is the opportunity to connect things that don’t appear to be connected. To bring my own disparate parts together and to also build that infrastructure internally, and then be able to apply that to my relationships with other people. The more connections I can find between disconnected things, the better my connections are with others.”

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