Black Light: A Novel by Galway Kinnell



Like the mythological Persian king he's named after, Jamshid, the carpet repairer, restoring the burned rug fibers of the head of a bird of paradise when we meet him on his knees working, thinks he's better and more brilliant than everybody else.  It's not pure diabolical arrogance per se, but pride the murky result of his unprocessed pain (his wife is recently deceased and his daughter, Leyla — unmarried and without a single suitor at the age of sixteen! — might as well be deceased) has made him bitter to the point of apostasy.  As his faith fades, he comes dangerously close to losing everything, not unlike his unfaithful namesake from the Persian epic, Shahnameh:

Jamshid surveyed the world, and saw none there
Whose greatness or whose splendor could compare
With his: and he who had known God became
Ungrateful, proud, forgetful of God's name

Even before we meet Jamshid in Galway Kinnell's novella, we know from the opening line — "Jamshid kept sliding forward as he worked, so that the patch of sunlight would remain just ahead of him, lighting up the motion of his hands" — that light and what light signifies in Kinnell's context — heaven's wisdom, favor, and rewards — will probably elude Jamshid, yet remain close, all too visible, on the edge of his grasp, as if he were in Hell gazing at Paradise, imploring Abraham with outstretched arm for a drop of water.  Black Light's opening serves as fitting foreshadowing for this fable riffing off the downslide of Persia's once omnipotent king, Jamshid.  Jamshid, the poor but not so humble man of Meshen, Iran, only feels "a little ashamed that he had never made a pilgrimage to Mecca or for that matter to the Shrine of Fatima at Qum." On the precipice of his spiritual abyss, so far gone in his rage over his life that didn't turn out right, Jamshid internally snubs those journeying to Mecca, the Hajis, and can barely stomach their contemptuous, Afghani glances cast his way.  As if they're so self-controlled, so holy, "getting married for the few weeks of their sojourn," in order to make easier the supposed "spiritual rigors" required in their once-in-a-lifetime quest.  Their false piety makes Jamshid laugh.  Maybe his last.  For in an impulsive instant, in a furious fit of pent up pique upon hearing the news that his daughter's rumoured "indiscretions" have made her unfit for marriage — unfit unless Jamshid agrees to the local mullah's assistance in the delicate matter (a bribe veiled in the white robes of religious duty), Jamshid lashes out with all the force in him at Mullah Torbati.  Suddenly, inexplicably, Jamshid's carpet shears that just moments before moved in mindless attendance upon a charred rug, trimming the kaleidoscopic plumage of a bird of paradise, now lie next to a sacred corpse, bloodied.

And so begins Jamshid's anti-pilgrimage whose terminus is destitution, whose life sentence might be despair. Roaming a hard desert road as far removed from Mecca as the crescent from the cross, haunts the frail figure of Jamshid through his nomad existence.  His destination is nowhere.  Transformed into a tramp like so many infidels before him, he seeks he knows not what, maybe an oasis, anyplace he can create some purpose out of killing more time.  He meets Ali out in the endless sands somewhere, a grizzled old man who's traveled back and forth himself for decades on the run, or in circles, from one fringe settlement to another, selling trinkets from whatever weathered sacks his decrepit camel still manages to haul, in exchange for bare necessities.  But the supplies and the shelter and the sex never last.  Nor do Ali's and Jamshid's doomed partnership.

What is Jamshid to do with the constant eclipse that's become of his tortured past, his very life?  How can he forget when his past bleeds darkness out of deep wounds into every successive step, and the steps he'll trudge tomorrow? How can he see where he's heading, or from what or whom he must flee; how will he ever chance upon potential refuge with his eyes smothered by black light?  Is redemption even possible for a man as accursed as Jamshid, who "could always sense the blackness of vultures in the sky.  Never visible ... a constant presence."?  One may wonder, too, whatever became of Persia's ancient king, their legendary Jamshid?


Galway Kinnell spent a year in Iran during 1959 and 1960, half the time as a lecturer at the University of Tehran, the other as a journalist for an English language newspaper, exploring as much as he could every corner of the country he'd come to love.  In Black Light's mid-section, with its vast outdoor scenery set under stars, "an ultimate landscape of desolation," we get a glimpse of how the ruggedness and isolation of Iran's arid geography impacted Kinnell's imagination.  We get a sense too that maybe Kinnell got lost in the mountains and deserts of Iran often, as in his narrative there's an unspoken feeling in Jamshid that he likes being lost, enjoys the spontaneity of adventure and perceived freedom his "lostness" inspires, the adrenaline rush he gets never knowing one night to the next what cave or ancient ruin he'll lay his weary head in.  If Jamshid embraces though never accepts being lost, his process of self-discovery makes the bleak existentialism of Black Light all the more fascinating.

Escape with Jamshid from the many consequences of his crime like some vicarious Persian Raskolnikov along for the camel ride, outpost to outpost, palm grove to palm grove, swathed in the paradox that is Black Light's luminescence.  It's a reading experience at times reminiscent of what The Sheltering Sky invoked. Mystery.  Meaning.  Wondering.  Why?

While Kinnell is better known as a poet (The Book of Nightmares) and translator (The Poems of Fran├žois Villon), his rare digression into prose in Black Light is certainly one to savor and reflect upon repeatedly, like enjoying time and again the myriad gradations of illumination in a radiant poem.

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