I hadn’t seen you in three years, your visit
to Dublin from rural south Devon marked
a holiday as much for me as you.
We met in Rathmines where we once lived
and went for coffee to escape the rain
that drove you from this country and my days.
You had a box with new boots, bought
to replace the worn out shoes that you had
when we were still together. On our way to my flat
the rain returned and your feet got wet.
You threw off your old shoes for the new,
and asked me to toss them in the bin –
these shoes that had that had taken you
to Guatemala, Oman, the dark woods
of Wisconsin and the darker streets
of London till, finally, your wanderlust spent,
the refuge of rural England. It lashed again
the morning you left, your new boots keeping you
safe against the elements and, I sensed, me.
We parted with an unconvincing embrace
and promise to speak, whatever love we once had
having walked its course and reached its end,
the feeling worn out like your old shoes in my bin.
I was relieved when the garbage men came.
‘Truth is sought for its own sake… Finding it is very difficult
and the road to it is rough. For truths are plunged in obscurity.’
– Alhazen (965CE/354AH – 1040CE/430AH), Doubts Concerning Ptolemy
Ibn al-Haytham, known to all as Alhazen,
sits in his chair looking at the window
opposite him, the rectangle of light revealing
the jasmine tree in his small garden, finally in blossom.
He’s been under house arrest for nearly ten
years, this window and its light particularly
familiar to him. He had once promised
the sixth Fatimid caliphate and their Caliph,
Al Hakim, that he could regulate the floodwaters
of the Great Nile by means of a dam. Al Hakim
believed him and gave him everything he needed
both in terms of materials and men yet even the great
Alhazen soon recognised that it was a doomed
plan and feigned insanity of mind and purpose
there in the heat of the delta to have his life
spared as the water flowed by him, unstoppable.
And thus he sits here in his chair opposite
a window he knows too well. Yet when he looks
at it he doesn’t feel anger or regret
for the years lost in this room; no, for Alhazen
has used this time well, conducting many
experiments on the nature of light, the daylight
from this window the only source he needed.
Here he has written his masterpiece on optics
outlining research and offering experimental proofs
on refraction, reflection, spherical aberration,
parabolic mirrors and the magnifying power of lens.
Yet, one experiment stands above them all,
evidence to overthrow a millennium of opinion.
Alhazen had simply placed a thick, black fabric
across the window and secured it tightly, then made
a small aperture at its centre, the rooftops
and mosques of the city suddenly projected
upside down on the wall opposite, showing
for certain that light travels from an object
to our eyes in straight lines and by no other means…
Alhazen, though, feels different today.
He has just heard of the Caliph’s death
and with that news he is free to leave this enclosure.
So he sits in his chair looking at this window
for the final time, nostalgic for all it has
given him. He stands at last and turns to the door.
He thinks he might like to go to the market
and buy fresh pomegranates.
Noel Duffy studied Experimental Physics at Trinity College, Dublin, before turning his hand to writing. He co-edited with Theo Dorgan Watching the River Flow: A Century in Irish Poetry (Poetry Ireland/Poetry Society, 1999), and was the winner of the START Chapbook Prize for his collection The Silence After in 2003. His collection In the Library of Lost Objects was published by Ward Wood, London, in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Strong Award for best debut by an Irish Poet. His second collection, On Light & Carbon will appear in autumn 2013, again with Ward Wood.