Kizer’s “Through a Glass Eye, Lightly”

Carolyn Kizer’s 500 page Cool, Calm & Collected will probably take me awhile to finish. Though my favorite Kizer poem from the 50’s is “The Intruder,? a close second would have to be one I don’t even remember from my previous two readings of The Ungrateful Garden


In the laboratory waiting room
one television actor with a teary face
trying a contact lens;
two muscular victims of industrial accidents;
several vain women – I was one of them–
came Deborah, four, to pick up her glass eye.

It was a long day:
Deborah waiting for the blood vessels
on her iris to dry.
Her mother said that, holding Deborah
when she was born,
“First I inspected her, from toes to navel,
then stopped at her head…?
We wondered why
the inspection hadn’t gone the other way.
“Looking into her eye
was like looking into a volcano:

“Her vacant pupil
went whirling down, down to the foundation
of the world …
When she was three years old they took it out.
She giggled when she went under
the anaesthetic.
Forty-five minutes later she came back
happy! …
The gas wore off, she found the hole in her face
(you know, it never bled?),
stayed happy, even when I went to pieces.
She’s five in June.

“Deborah, you get right down
from there, or I’ll have to slap!?
Laughing, Deborah climbed into the lap
of one vain lady, who
had been discontented with her own beauty.
Now she held on to Deborah, looked her steadily
in the empty eye.

Despite the fact that this poem seems to me to read more like a short, short story than a poem, I like its immediacy, its conversational approach, its non-sentimental tone, and its clear message.

I’m afraid most of us are prone to comparing ourselves to those that are more “blessed? in some way rather than to those who are less fortunate. We do so, of course, so that we can convince ourselves that we must have, or that we deserve, something we probably don’t need at all.

Modern readers will have to remind themselves that this poem is written in the bad, old days when contact lenses were made of glass, not plastic, and cost much more than a pair of eyeglasses. You wore them out of vanity, because you wanted to be one of the “beautiful? people, not some nerdy bookworm.

It’s hard to read the poem and not remember just how lucky most of us really are, no matter how much we’d like to lose twenty pounds, have straighter, whiter, teeth, or have 20/20 vision. It’s even more embarrassing to discover this by meeting someone who seems perfectly happy without those things.

3 thoughts on “Kizer’s “Through a Glass Eye, Lightly””

  1. Loren, have you seen Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly? I’m not at all familiar with Kizer’s poetry and its themes, so I’m hesitant to draw connections, but the film involves a mentally unstable woman on an Island retreat with her Father, Husband and Brother, all of whom are insensitive to her needs, leading her to a believe that God is a threatening spider up in the attic. The works are similar from being within a clinical setting, also the interaction between family relations, and involving girl/woman who ‘sees’ things differently than the other individuals. I’m not certain as to why Kizer replaced Darkly with Lightly, but something to think about. Possibly because of the mother’s focus away from herself to that of Deborah at the end of the poem? In opposition to Bergman’s film which strongly emphasizes the isolation of the main actress.

  2. My apologies Loren, but I just did a bit more looking into the phrase “Through a Glass Darkly” and found out that it goes back much further than Bergman, and read your opening statement closer and picked up that if the poem was originally written in the 50’s than it has nothing to do with Bergman’s ’61 work (I find myself red faced, again). But, its interesting to still compare the two works’ interpretation of the phrase, it originally stemming back to the apostle Paul:
    Apologies again. An interesting poem and I thank you for posting it.

  3. I must admit that I’m a little confused on why Kizer added “lightly” to the title, unless it was to contrast with Paul’s sayings, as if for a sudden moment the lady staring into the child’s empty socket did see some truth then and there.

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