“The Double Rainbow (Mānoa Valley)” in Tonto’s Revenge by Adam Aitken

Double Rainbow Manoa

(Tinfish, Kāne’ohe. HI, 2011)
Apparently, there is something about Hawai’i that makes people who take up residency there really nervous. I think of the writings of Juliana Spahr. And this poem. I guess it’s the obviousness of colonization, of being one of the colonizers. I guess it’s the obviousness of being in a totally foreign climate. I really don’t know. I spent a week as a tourist on Maui and that taught me nothing, except that it was easy to cop weed from the locals. And that the weed was good.
In any case, this poem seems quite concerned with authenticity, on many levels. I can’t say that the Aitken ever comes quite into the clear about it. Which makes for slightly confusing reading, but which at the same time might be one of the poem’s virtues.
“So you called me to them / arching over themselves / as mirrored spectra”. There is a you in this poem. We will have to wait to see if this is significant. “Them” refers to the double rainbows of the title, which are described in scientific terms as “mirrored spectra”.
Though this poem is broken into stanzas, the thoughts run over the breaks, so I’m not sure what the stanzas represent, except (at best) perhaps breaks or slowings in the author / narrator’s thought process. So the second stanza’s first line apparently refers in two directions (i.e. it is the middle of a sentence) which connects the really present rainbows with representations of them he’d seen before in “a head shop / in a hippy town”.
But the real thing is better. No. It’s not. It’s “more original”. Which circles me back round to my point re: authenticity. How can a rainbow be original, first of all? When every rainbow is caused by the exact same prismatic effects? And second, why would it be more original than an artist’s representation of it (however mediocre the representation)? And third, is that originality necessarily something to be prized?
Those are not questions to be answered here. I’m not writing an essay about “The rainbow in an aged of photo-mechanical reproduction.” Nor about head shop culture. I’m just noting that what’s apparently more important to the author / narrator than anything else at the moment is the originality of the rainbows he’s witnessing. And that that’s worth ruminating over. All that I think it’s appropriate to say here is that, for this author / narrator, at least, originality is a highly prized feature. (Maybe it’s “proof” he’s having a “real” Hawai’ian experience?)
The author / narrator goes on to note that the double rainbows are “impossible to photograph / even with the digital SLR”.
This is followed by something odd. “Odd” here is not a criticism; it’s only a way of noting my “Wait a minute!” Not only is the sight impossible to photograph, it’s “impossible to unweave / / impossible to extract / from its backdrop forest / / impossible to export.” The oddness here is that what photographer ever tries to cut a rainbow from its background? None that I can think of. Well, I suppose there’s always Photoshop, but how often does a tourist Photoshop out a forest, etc and say, “Hey, look at these rainbows!”??
So what is going on here. Again, I believe that the author / narrator is very conscious that this is a “real” Hawai’ian experience, and that’s what’s important about it. Which would explain at least one of the puns on export (the other being another name for download from the camera).
I take the next stanza is a verbal description of at least some of the other things he sees while he’s watching the rainbows. They too are part of his “authentic Hawai’ian experience”:
Faculty housing park
a slab of mountain
a Pacific bank of cumulus
a man walking his dog
a potted chilly plant
no-one falling out of the sky on burning wings either
The last line, of course, which is a reference to Icarus in Auden’s “The Old Masters”, describes something he doesn’t see. This is the second time in this series of readings that that “The Old Masters” has come up. There’s probably something to be said about that, about the kind of touchstones today’s poets have, about how many generations of poetry are live in most poet’s minds at any one time …
Anyway, after going on for a while about the impossibility of capturing the reality of the double rainbows in all their originality, the poet / narrator next admits: “so I have it now / my screensaver”. Is this an admission that he’s just like all the tourists, and will make do with an ersatz Hawai’i? That while the authentic and original may exist, it is not for him?
In any case, he goes on to praise this photograph that is nothing but a lack. It’s still
better than Wordsworth’s field of daffodils
better than the Met Office prediction
better than Newtonian
(“constructive and destructive
double interference”)
but I have no idea why it’s better than any of these things, especially the first, because he’s used language here to describe it, as Wordsworth did the daffodils, and the last, because he began by calling the rainbows “mirrored spectra”, which sounds as Newtonian as all get-out.
Perhaps he’s simply saying that a picture that misses the essence is still worth a thousand words.
Though there’s no punctuation between the end of this stanza and the next, which reads, “Indra’s bow times two / says the Hindu.” I somehow do not read this stanza as something else his screensaver is better than. Though perhaps I should. Perhaps his admittedly failed photograph is superior to the Hindu’s description, because the Indra stuff is an import, whereas the photo, despite its impossibility, is as close to authentic Hawai’ian as he can get. (Maybe that helps to explain why the photo is better than Wordsworth (an imported poem), etc etc.)
But perhaps not. Perhaps Indra’s bow is a reasonably acceptable description of the rainbow.
Now we come to a full stop. Which make the last three lines a separate utterance:
Or the authentic local’s
The rainbow maiden of Mānoa.
The “Or” which begins this utterance seems to tie it to the other things his photo is better than. But I’m not sure that it should be tied. There is that full stop. Maybe this follows on a positive assessment of Indra’s rainbow, and even tops it. After all, it is “authentic”. That word is emphasized, I think. Perhaps it’s only the authentic local who can really “see” these rainbows for what they are.
Which, would, ultimately, make this poem about the author / narrator’s insecurity, and not about a double rainbow at all.
As I reread this and the poem, it occurs to me that he didn’t photograph the rainbows at all, that he photographed the
Faculty housing park
a slab of mountain
a Pacific bank of cumulus
a man walking his dog
a potted chilly plant
no-one falling out of the sky on burning wings either
and that that’s his screen-saver. In which case he left the rainbows for the locals (tho he continues to think about them) and kept the “mundane not-particularly-Hawai’ian quotidian” for himself. Which could be photographed. Which is authentic everywhere. And which is always better than the marvelous. Because the marvelous is exactly that which really is. Wherever you’re from.
[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days.  While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another.  So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review.  To wit: NEXT. And an Afterword on John’s reading process is also available HERE!]
 John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of ‘Girl Singing’ and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means “important to him”. Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.