KEEPER OF THE FLAME – with Background

42nd st
Beyond the noise and sunlight of 42nd Street

and posters of the violent acts Now Showing

* Kung Fu Killers! * Vampire Hookers! * up stairs

with grit and urine in the treads, across the balcony—

 

up a steep steel ladder, through a door locked

against thieves and lunatics—is the booth at the theater

ceiling, like an office, workroom, watchman’s lair,

with toilet, hot plate, incandescent light.

 

It is hot, the projectionist wears a t-shirt. Small windows

look down the vast darkness to giants on the screen.

The old projector, wheezing, sucks the strip of images

into its throat, past its light,

 

the flame that hisses between carbon rods.

This is the arc light he tends; he’s soft

from inactivity, locked from daylight in this sanctum

as long as crowds come by.

 

He stacks cans of film, waits for signals

to flick switches or change the reels. You’ve seen

what happens if he dozes or turns away too long,

reading or eating, and the sound fails or light dies—

 

we hoot and stamp and whistle, summoning

the protector of our visions who tends

the flame and celluloid, guardian of dreams

that fly across the dark on motes of light.

 

 

In the 1970s, when I worked on 43rd Street, the man who lived across the street from us in New Jersey worked on 42nd Street as a projectionist in a huge old theater that showed double bills of action movies (not pornography). The theater has been restored now to its original purpose as a legitimate theater—that is, for plays and musicals.

I visited one day during my lunch hour; everything in this poem is true. I was struck by the need, for safety, of being locked in and never leaving for the entire shift. It was otherwise what was considered a good job, with the protection of a union—something that I, in my office nearby, didn’t have (leading to a very bad outcome, which is another story).

The arc-light technology, pre-dating Edison’s light bulb, would eventually be replaced by safer and more reliable bulbs and now, of course, film itself is being phased out.

Structural note: at some point in revising the poem 15 or 20 times, I saw that almost every stanza had a reference to some kind of light—sunlight, incandescent, arc, or “light.” I then revised it so that every stanza does.

The idea of a projectionist as a mock-classical high priest of visions came to me early on. I didn’t witness this breakdown on 42nd Street, but remembered it from my childhood in a small-town theater. My New Jersey neighbor was sane and sober, but I could imagine projectionists drinking or going mad and becoming unreliable in their duties.

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