"If I were to tell you about an encounter with an invisible force,” writes David Herrstrom in the introduction to his book, “an experience of a reality that has not substance but is visible and material, accompanies me everywhere … fills me with joy and even ecstasy on occasion, possesses physical and psychological healing powers, and whose circumferences is nowhere and center everywhere, you would assume … that I’m talking about an angel or even God.
“But no this is the ordinary yet beautiful, mysterious light of a typical sunny day.”
The book — “Light as Experience and Imagination from Paleolithic to Roman Times” (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press) — with its footnotes and bibliography, will appeal to both scholars, artists, and art lovers, to those interested in philosophy and religion, and anyone who has ever been struck by the light filtering through dark clouds or through the window. And yes, there will be a second volume, due out in 2019, “Light as Experience and Imagination from Medieval to Modern Times.”
“I am interested in the story of natural light that has seduced the individual through the ages, whether pouring off or diffused through surfaces,” says Herrstrom, a poet who lives in the Borough of Roosevelt. “Light reveals the visible world, the core experience. This book is about individual encounters with and the powerful experiences of the character of light.” He participates in the “One Sock Missing” poetry reading at Roosevelt Borough Hall on Saturday, April 7, at 8 p.m.
Herrstrom ponders such questions as: What does light mean to us? How does it change our lives? There are testimonies through personal experiences with light in everything from painting to poetry, philosophical writings, architecture, mosaics, mythology and religion, literature, and Paleolithic paintings on walls. “I’m relating the history of the human experience of light.”
From an evolutionary point of view, we’ve co-evolved with light, he continues. “It’s ultimately democratic, so common and simple we’re not even aware of it, and yet have these epiphanies, aesthetically and spiritually responding to light. If anything approaches the universal symbol of religion it’s light, from Zoroastrianism to Christianity and Buddhism.”
Going back to the Paleolithic era, Herrstrom relates the tale of Raven from the Haida hunter-gatherer tribe who made their home in the Pacific Northwest. Raven is a bird-man who steals the light. In the beginning, there was all-consuming darkness. An old man lived with his daughter and kept “all the light of the universe in the smallest box nested within an infinite number of boxes. But Raven didn’t like this world of darkness, so he decided to steal the light. Contriving to be born of the old man’s daughter, he tricks her into giving birth to a strange-looking baby boy with a few feathers and shining eyes. Once born, Raven wins her father’s affection.”
The old man gives in and allows Raven to see what’s in the boxes and “hold the light for just a moment… A strange radiance, never before seen, began to infuse the darkness of the house.”
The old man reaches in and lifts out the light, and Raven snaps it up in his beak and swoops out into the “huge darkness of the world.” And in that moment the “world was at once transformed.”
Herrstrom is no stranger to mythology. He grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family in which the King James Bible was read every night at dinner. “I loved the literature that it was, with so many great stories and experiences.” The religious aspects of the Bible fell away as he developed an ear for poetry.
In his early 20s Herrstrom discovered the poet William Blake. “It was a major revelation. He was speaking the language of fundamentalism but subverting it in language, and I learned I could appreciate it as literature. But it was preposterous to assume it was given by God.” And yet “you write something so powerful that people think it’s been given by a god — that’s amazing! That you tell a story such as Jonah, and it’s so astounding and powerful that people thought it couldn’t be from human imagination. Now that’s the dream of a poet, to have that kind of power.”
In 1990 Herrstrom published “Jonah’s Disappearance” (Ambrosia Press), a sequence of poems with drawings by his then-Roosevelt neighbor, Jacob Landau (1917-2001). He describes it as a dialogue between drawing and text. In “The Book of Unknowing: A Poet’s Response to the Gospel of John” (Wipf & Stock, 2012), Herrstrom explores John’s obsessions, including light.
These days Herrstrom declares California his religion. Growing up in its “mineral crystalline light,” he lived not far from the coast, where his mother would walk on the beach and collect things for her artwork. Herrstrom’s first experience with the profound effects of natural light came when he accompanied her to her favorite redwood grove and shared her excitement about “that dapple-fall of light through the upper story.”
Herrstrom recalls the “tawny skinned California hills and the light plane Christo captured in his ‘Running Fence,’” the 18-foot-high, 25-mile long white cloth that, in the mid 1970s, “undulated from Marin County across Sonoma and out onto the ocean reflecting the light in different ways.”
This was well after Herrstrom left home, but some of his high school friends had volunteered on the nearly four-year project. “Christo was told he couldn’t extend it into the ocean, but in the darkness of night he got his crew to continue it into the sea.”
Herrstrom’s mother painted portraits and made sculpture, collage, and pottery. He would help by filling the pottery molds with slip, then firing them in a large gas-fired furnace. His father built his mother’s studio out of a water tower, from which she painted the light in the redwoods and kept her collections of colored sea glass in Swanson TV dinner trays. From these she made sculptures that hung in the windows and captured the light.
His father ran an apple orchard, and as a child Herrstrom was not fond of the hard physical labor. He loved to read and quickly learned he could be excused from his chores when doing homework — and thus became studious. This worked against him, though, when during high school Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” was being filmed nearby: his friends got to be extras, but he had to stay home and work.
Eager to leave the ranch and move to the East Coast, he headed East at 17 for Nyack College in Nyack, New York, “where, speaking of light, Edward Hopper made his home.” (There is a chapter on Hopper in the second volume.)
“It was only later I came to love Hopper’s work. Light has its own presence, Hopper experiences it as an entity in itself, not just to illuminate something. It is the feature. He paints rooms of light, coming in through open doorways, from the ocean outside. Light comes in and is on the floor. He’s absolutely enthralled by capturing this light. He said the most glorious thing is light on a white wall, and that’s what he paints. He even captures artificial light in the city. The relationship he has to light completely permeates his work, he has tremendous respect for light as a character.”
After Nyack College Herrstrom earned a master’s and Ph.D. in English literature at NYU; his dissertation was on William Blake. He had been writing poetry since he was 15, encouraged by a teacher who also played classical guitar. Herrstrom’s mother took him to an Andre Segovia concert in San Francisco, where the 15-year-old found the music “unbelievably rapturous” and wrote a poem about the experience. He notes how his grandfather had been an engineer, and he loved geology, but was now being called to write poetry.
With a freshly minted Ph.D., Herrstrom taught English literature at Queens College in New York in the early 1970s. He came to Princeton while working on his dissertation and working at Westminster Choir College and was later invited by Bell Labs to teach a writing course for scientists. During that time “I got to read about Jovian lightning on Jupiter.” This led to a corporate career concerning human factors in screen design and interaction, among other things.
With his wife, Constance, Herrstrom moved to Roosevelt in 1975. “It seemed a long way out in the sticks,” but seeing a man across the street digging dandelions, he introduced himself to the artist Gregorio Prestopino. Shortly thereafter he met artist Jacob Landau and musician Laurie Altman.
Landau’s home, in a geodesic dome, was diagonally through the woods behind Herrstrom’s home, and Herrstrom would stop in to listen to Beethoven and Bach with Landau. “I learned he liked Blake and went nuts. So we would talk about Blake, and I found out he was working on the Dante illustrations, the most incredible sequence, and Blake illustrated Dante!”
Soon Mark Zuckerman, a musician and composer, moved across street — he had won a New Jersey Council on the Arts fellowship for music composition. Herrstrom had won a poetry fellowship from the council. They collaborated on an opera, “The Outlaw and the King,” performed at Rutgers, and Herrstrom’s series of poems “Laments of the Homeless Women,” with music by Altman, was performed at Westminster Choir College. It was included on the CD, “Sonic Migrations: Music of Laurie Altman,” published in 2017 by NEOS.
A founder of the Roosevelt Arts Project and its president for nearly three decades, Herrstrom has advocated for other artists and their collaborations. A member of the US1 Poets cooperative, Herrstrom has published chapbooks and poems in literary journals and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
In 2007 he became president of the Jacob Landau Institute, getting the artist’s works into museums and publications and lectured and written about. A permanent home was secured for Landau’s lithographs at Monmouth University and for his memoirs, books by and about him, and book illustrations at Drew University.
With Andrew Scrimgeour, Herrstrom is working on a book, “The Prophet Quest: The Windows of Jacob Landau at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania” to be published by Penn State University Press in 2019.
Herrstrom returned to academia as an adjunct at Monmouth University, teaching Word and Image, a course he designed about the interaction between the visual and the verbal in graphic novels, Dante illustrations, biblical illustrations, political posters, and social media.
He feels impassioned to communicate his ideas about light because it “reveals a central and overlooked dimension of our cultural history. We have a book on the history of salt, but we co-evolved with light and it’s so central to our lives yet we take it for granted. We should be aware of it to know what it means to be human, and to our relationship with nature.
“Light is a simple and a complex character,” he continues, “and the accumulated stories are revealing, a richly layered tapestry of human experience that expands our consciousness. Interaction with light defines us as human beings.”
And, finally, “light is beautiful — its beauty seduces us, some of us fall for it completely. The world to me is radiant, whatever the time of year, day, how it falls on the railing outside the window or on trees or how the snow rises up to meet the light. It settles into the woods in a certain way, it’s alive. I’m besotted by it.”
One Sock Missing: A Poetry Reading, Roosevelt Borough Hall, 33 North Rochdale Avenue, Roosevelt. Saturday, April 7, 8 p.m. Suggested donation $5. www.rooseveltartsproject.org
#b#In California Light My Life#/b#
In this land light sees itself. The sky project ever emptied.
Lighteaters sit at a table shaped like the state of California.
Apple trees gulp light whole, spit green out. In my window
a tawny-hided hill watches, the puma at rest: Please, a tooth of light? And I give her one. The light all vowels, sound of Spanish, fragrance of eucalyptus. I open an orange and the coast waters wash over me. My soul whistles like quail from the blackberry brambles. Daylight comes in, asks who I am. I ask daylight
the same. The invisible in this life made visible.
— David Herrstrom