Monday, October 28, 2019

Jupiter Set in September

Snug in our web of astronomy, of centuries
On centuries of individual human lifetimes
Spent before us carefully observing night
Skies for regularities, changes, and signs,
For patterns inferred from patterns inferred
From inherited measurements, personal
Years of patient calculations, conferring
With the already-then ancients, conversing
With contemporaries over the latest events,
Maths, error corrections for uncertainties,
Controversies, technologies, telescopes,
Observatories in the deserts, on mountains,
Lens-grinding techniques, new wavelengths
Invisible to the keenest eyes in clearest air,
On and on, this legacy in place at our birth,
Given to us like language, a mother tongue,
The ongoing research, enormous projects,
Telescopes in space, robot probes, massive
Arrays spanning mountain ranges, enormous
Underground tunnels smashing subatomic
Particles in circles larger than metropolises,
The primary, secondary, tertiary training
Of each next generation, the calculators,
The computers, the career opportunities,
The interconnected hives of universities
And libraries, the heaped-up metabolisms
Of information so well-insulated, so intricate,
That they have their own nervous circulations,
Their own trophic layers, whole ecosystems,
Including commensals, parasites, viruses,
Infestations, outbreak species, conspiracies,
We forget. We forget what night sky is like,
What it looks like to our little, feeble eyes,
And we have no respect for the gone minds
Who had to guess, couldn’t help guessing,
Being us, being our kind, what those lights
Could possibly be or mean or intend for them.
I went out to the Nevada desert the weekend
After the internet conspiracy fans had planned
To celebrate aliens, maybe storm Area 51,
Maybe free the visitors from captivity, mostly
As an excuse to book-up remote motels, party,
Give the police a practice drill and the military
Instillations a minor fit, have a good time.
They were gone. The clerk at the cabins said
The locals had been mildly disappointed.
“We were sort of hoping for really colorful
Characters, y’know, but they were mostly
Just cheerful and curious. Never saw so
Many cops and troops around here, though.”
Myself, I was there for a mere moonless night—
Clear skies, mild temperatures, barely a breeze,
Almost no chance of a passenger-jet contrail
So near the closed airspace over military sites,
Nothing listed on the night-sky schedule
But the ordinary business of rotating stars,
No meteor showers, no planetary line-ups,
Not even Venus or Mars. Just Jupiter, Saturn,
Medium-high and far apart in the early sky,
Both setting before midnight. Quiet, quiet
And dark a night as I could find nearby on Earth
And in Earth’s atmosphere. I parked in brush
On a sandy wayside far from highway lights,
The only interference after twilight a smudge
On the low, southernmost horizon, not quite
A glow, almost like zodiacal light, the faint
Reminder of showy Las Vegas at two hours’ drive
Or more by shortest route, just about the time
It took for the stars to come out completely—
Bright, nearly evenly scattered, just slightly
Patterned, as if spilled, poured dots of light.
Over the top arched a long ribbon of cloud
That wasn’t a cloud, the river of heaven,
The pathway of milk, the backbone of night.
I shifted, tilted, readjusted my perspective,
And thought of the familiar names and tales
I had ingested over decades, of polestars,
Bears, dragons, hunters, twins, archers,
Virgins, monsters who devoured their own
Children, punished lovers freed to be lonely,
Stuck as shining specks forever in the night,
All the human melodrama, all of the omens
For aligning the hall, storming the palace,
Starting a war. I thought of fancy phrases,
Of the supermassive black hole at the heart
Of that one ragged ribbon of star cloud,
Of the invisible bubbles of radio waves from it.
I recalled going out to fetch a few splits
From the woodpile outside a drafty house
On the floor of Castle Valley, Utah, in winter
One year, night after night, hobbling, hurrying,
Only to get transfixed, shivering, legs aching,
Arms aching and scratched by the wood,
Neck sore from being bent back at an angle,
Trying to take in all of the stars. As always,
I don’t know why, I thought of Whitman’s dig
At “the learn’d astronomer,” and his boast
Of looking “in perfect silence at the stars.”
I grew aware, with a hammering awareness,
How numbingly many, wordlessly inscrutable,
How baffling all those flecks and pins of light
Would be without anyone’s prior astronomy
To tell me what I should make of them,
Without poetry or mythology, with just them
And this body staring back at them, wondering if
I envied the bats in their shadows around me.

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