Shuchi Saraswat calls our attention to windows. What they do, what they can mean to people. In the early days of the pandemic, watching the comings and goings of the squirrels, birds, cats, and all the new dogs in the neighborhood was a lifeline. Later, seeing the aftereffects of police violence in the shards of glass on the sidewalks of my city was equally important. I am grateful to windows for all they can do and signify, and to Shuchi for reminding me of that.
—Erika Stevens, senior editor
The light falls scalene on floor, wall, ceiling. Late spring in New England. Dawn breaks early and with the birds. My morning mouth full of mockingbird, robin, cardinal, blue jay, starling, grackle, sparrow, woodpecker, dove. City birds that I now know by name. They arrived in March, at the same time that the pandemic forced us to recede into our home. Home all day! I thought. I will finally learn the birds! I hung two feeders from the bare branches of a wisteria plant, and I watched the birds through the windows. I learned them and they learned me. Now they no longer scatter when they sense my approach. They know my lurk, my shadow. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in one of his fifteen poems about windows that “every bird that flies within / my reach wants me to consent. / I consent. Such an inconstant / force doesn’t surprise me now, it soothes.”
Windows are a surface. Sur-face. Above-face. A boundary. Like a mask, they come between. Windows can be pressed up against, touched, shattered, broken, kissed. Press your lips against the glass and feel how the flesh of your lips swells against its solid form. Press your hand against the window, your disease-spreading, dried-out hands, first the tips then the palm. Families and lovers who didn’t share a home could meet this way, on either side of glass. A palm on the other side of the window presses toward yours, the space between becomes charged by the hands almost touching, the surface between the space of almost, the space of an unfulfilled desire.
I imagine the artist Baladine Klossowska in all her longing. She was Rilke’s lover, with him for the last ten years of his life. He wrote poems about windows and she sketched his windows as he did. Baladine—Rilke—window. Three points on a triangle. “Aren’t you our geometry, / window, very simple shape / circumscribing our enormous / life painlessly?” Light falls scalene on floor, wall, ceiling. In Rilke’s poems he writes to the windows as if they are his object of longing. “You, window, O waiting’s measure / refilled so often, / when one life spills out and grows / impatient for another.” But Baladine’s sketches are of women as seen through a window, their nude bodies partially obscured, dismembered by the edges and frame. In 1927, after Rilke’s death, Baladine published his poems and her sketches together in a book, Les Fenêtres; few copies still exist. Rilke’s window poems have been extracted from the lovers’ collaboration and collected with his other work; even in translation, they are easier to find than Baladine’s drawings, which would need no translation. I found a few of her sketches online. In one, six birds fly toward an open window while on the other side a naked woman fists sleep out of her eye.
Why windows? One answer, from Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami: “I’ve often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame.” Another answer, from Etel Adnan: “Contrary to what is usually believed, it is not general ideas and a grandiose unfolding of great events that most impress the mind in times of heightened historical upheavals but, rather, it is the uninterrupted flow of little experiences, observations, disturbances, small ecstasies, or barely perceptible discouragements that make up the trivialized day-to-day living.”
Or maybe it’s something about the gravity defying nature of windows, the way they are fixed in place, frozen in a fall. Every now and then a bird sees the sky reflected in the glass as passage instead of border and flies into the window. I hear it first, the sinister thud of body meeting surface. I scan the grass for the bird’s body while the cat paws at the feathers that lodge into the screen. Poor creatures, the cat and I are, submerged in our domestic wreckage. The windows are our shared edge, a way out, to imagine, to play pretend. In the summer evenings and early mornings, all lights off, the sky glows blue through conifers and I am elsewhere. As if the house has fallen through to another landscape, on another planet where the slice of moon always shares the sky with the sun. But I have hardly gone elsewhere. Fact is, I am lucky because there’s no elsewhere I have to be.
Early windows were openings in the walls of dwellings, covered first with paper, animal skin, oil parchment, and eventually, opaque flat glass. Humans, then, made windows as a way to assess outside threats to their homes, to know the weather (not feel the air), to keep watch (not gaze).
I watch my neighbor while he gardens. He wears a t-shirt in support of Donald Trump, a rare sight on my street of rainbow flags and Black Lives Matters signs in this New England city that prides on its image of being progressive and blue. I see that shirt and I am afraid. An old, familiar fear that seizes my body then churns my mind. A fear that rises from the gap between knowing and unknowing. I watch him from my bedroom window at an angle, so I can watch and not be seen.
Rilke wrote to a window: “You who divides and attracts, / as fickle as the sea /sudden mirror reflecting our face / mingled with what we see in back; fraction of freedom compromised / by the presence of risk; /trapped by whatever’s in us that evens the odds of the loaded outside.”
To watch—to observe, to take in, to be cautious, on guard. Night watchmen were an early form of police in the US. In colonial times, they guarded the villages from potential threat, protecting property from the Native Americans whose land they were on. Another form of early police were the slave patrols of white men in the South, tasked by governments and landowners to quell slave-worker uprisings and escapes. Who is watching, who is patrolling / who do they watch, who do they patrol / subject, object.
In a 1982 article titled “Broken Windows,” criminologists George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson theorized that a broken window left unfixed prompts more broken windows. They claimed that if there is the appearance of order in a community, then criminals are less likely to disrupt that order. They believed in illusions, in the power of the surface. They believed that “the police are plainly the key to order maintenance.”
But who determines what order looks like?
Kelling and Wilson were also limited in how they understood the psychology of fear. For example, they believed that “an officer on foot cannot separate himself from the street people; if he is approached, only his uniform and his personality can help him manage whatever is about to happen.” A neat image which omits that the police uniform includes tools to restrain and harm— gun, baton, handcuffs. And while they acknowledged potential race biases, they believed proper police training could counteract bias. But what about the fear that rises in the gaps, the fear that comes from not knowing and thus assuming, a fear that has been inherited in the body, passed down from long before we were born?
It’s June and the outside is loaded. The pandemic-silenced surface has cracked open. In the cities, the streets fill with people protesting the murder of George Floyd. Windows break. These windows that are structural and structure, that indicate order and property, that hold together. That stand tall. They become a distraction: articles quoting the struggling small business owners distressed over broken windows pitted against the small business owner who is willing to sacrifice the windows for the greater cause. Plywood covers glass, a stopgap and a compromise. Because it is easier to talk about surface damage than unearthing buried roots. But the surface has broken and I’m not sure I want a quick repair.
Kelling, in a 2016 NPR article titled “How a Theory of Crime and Policing was Born, and Went Terribly Wrong”: “It’s to the point now where I wonder if we should back away from the metaphor of broken windows. We didn’t know how powerful it was going to be. It simplified, it was easy to communicate, a lot of people got it as a result of the metaphor. It was attractive for a long time. But as you know, metaphors can wear out and become stale.”
That glass you spread your lips against, you press, is not a complete solid, but an amorphous one. Window glass—plate glass—is soft glass. Formed from particles of sand, soda ash, and limestone, liquefied at high temperatures then cooled, the process of rapid heating and cooling creates gaps between the atoms and molecules, allowing for photons of visible light to pass through. This makes the glass transparent and also fragile. Born from heat, it can combust also in heat.
From a 1940 study of “war-time window breakage”: “Under blast, the damage occurs in two stages. In the first, during the compression period the centre of the glass is forced inwards as a diaphragm, and ring and radial cracks develop. In the second stage, before the pieces have time to separate, the ‘suction’ half of the wave comes into effect and the pieces fall toward the bomb.”
A huddling together before a blasting apart.
The border, breached. Silent sign of home. Innocuous window, offering itself up for gazing and rage and blast. Protector and shield, shattered into lethal long daggers.
My friend Zeina has written an essay about her brother-in-law, a hospital worker in Beirut, about his hours after the August blast. Broken windows are everywhere but they are not the subject. The subject is inherited trauma, an irresponsible government, her brother-in-law and his story. Windows are not the subject because they are objects, part of the setting, as prone to metaphor as the sky and the weather. Objects that allow objectification. But windows still appear in many first-hand accounts of that day, like in one by Seema Jilani who describes the terror of seeing “fragments of glass embedded in the perfect baby skin” of her daughter. Jilani recalls how on the way to school they walked on shattered glass from the protests eight months before, and now again, they walk on shattered glass.
The exploded window has lost its cohesion, it’s identity as an object; the glass-spawned fragments become heterogeneous debris. Yet in their new crude form, in the shock of a surface broken, they still suggest what once was, what has been destroyed.
When Zeina asks how I am, I tell her I am writing about windows. Immediately I say, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” by which I mean but don’t say, this is a small thing, my writing about windows, small and insignificant, it is nothing, not a thing, but which I follow with, “I guess it’s because I should be writing.” I look out the window while I wait for her to respond, the same one I have looked out over the last six months when I forced myself awake at 4 a.m., 5 a.m., up before the rest of the house, early and with the birds. In response, Zeina sends me a photo of her morning reading, pages from Etel Adnan’s In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, in which she has underlined:
“I need not repeat my need for windows . . .”
- The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by A. Poulin, Jr., Graywolf Press, 2002
- Epigraph to the film 24 Frames by Abbas Kiarostami, 2017
- In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country by Etel Adnan, City Lights Books, 2004
- “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety” by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, The Atlantic, March 1982
- “How a Theory of Crime and Policing Was Born, and Went Terribly Wrong” by Shankar Vedantam, Chris Benderev, Tara Boyle, Renee Klahr, Maggie Penman, and Jennifer Schmidt, National Public Radio, November 2016
- “Window Breakage by Bomb-Blast” (author unknown), Nature issue no. 3707, November 16, 1940
- “When the Healing Place Exploded” by Zeina Hashem Beck, The Rumpus, September 2020
- “Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast” by Seema Jilani, The New York Review of Books Daily, August 2020
Shuchi Saraswat's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ecotone, Ploughshares online, Tin House online, The Women's Review of Books, and Arrowsmith, among others. She is the director of the Transnational Literature Series at Brookline Booksmith and a nonfiction editor at the literary journal AGNI. She currently lives in Boston, where she's working on a book about windows.