Friday, February 28, 2020

21,000 Days Drawing Breath (and a Decade Spent Counting the Days)

Eight months watching a kitten grow
Into a cat. A few populations remain
Anumeric, or nearly, and live whole lives
Hardly counting at all, much less their days.
Chinese sages, long lovers of counting
And numerology, traditionally ascribed
36,000 days as the extent of their lifespan,
Which is a nice, round number packed
With factors, working out to about 98
Years and change, not unreasonable, not
Impossible, less extreme than the current
Limit pegged to Jeanne Calment, but more
Ambitious than the Biblical three-score
And ten. Funny humans. Ask us our size,
And we hover around the mean. Ask us how
Long humans live, and we cite the extreme,
Like children still hoping to grow into giants.
It’s hard to peer far into the world beyond
Personal fears and desires. We try. We try
To shift perspective, but perspective
Doesn’t help us much. We know enough
How multidimensionally finite we are, but
After we have noted the sun is a minor star
And our planet a little blue fleck of oceans
Boiling with lives, at least until we eat them,
Our own lives ravenous specks in the boil,
And so on and so forth, one still wonders
About the latest pang in one’s own torso,
The numbers in one’s own cash account,
The good opinion of strangers, the rumbles
Seeping from old plumbing down the hall.
Say this for us—the range of our concerns,
The capacity to worry about a bite to eat,
Appointments, friends, fairness, plagues,
And planet-annihilating disasters—to say
Nothing of our fascination with the stars—
Is wonderful and scales up and down, fast
As beads zipping along an abacus. We care
For nothing and no one except ourselves—
Our close kin—our oldest confidants—
Our teams—our communities—our towns—
Our nations—our people—other species—
Ecosystems—Mother Earth—our angels—
Our ancestors—our divinities—sometimes
Extraterrestrial life forms we are sure exist
And might yet matter to us, might already.
We focus only on the next moment—next
Decades—past centuries—history—
Antiquity—prehistory—the origin of Life—
Extinction—the heat death of the universe.
We care across combinatorial perspectives.
We do not lack for various perspectives. We
Know our scales, but we can’t steady them.
We can invent and reinvent justice, behave
Unjustly nonetheless, and courageously
Fight injustice, all in one nation, one village,
One lifetime, one single day. And we live so
Many days. Today, the body composing
These phrases is already up to 21,000 days
And counting, although the counting itself
Began later, much later than the breathing.
That’s a pretty fair fraction of 36,000,
Longer than a lot of lifetimes get, although
Sometimes it feels as if the first five, loosely
Numbered, decades didn’t really count yet.
Only what animal behavioral ecologists call
Reproductive maturity woke this machine,
And, six weeks after the astonishment of an
Actual infant dependent drawing breath,
Holding that utterly helpless human asleep
On this bony chest, everything counted.
The anchor of the scales, the fulcrum of all
Coordinate dimensions became that skull
As soft and dimpled as a fine cantaloupe,
Something that could sprout a world tree,
And the long unfolding of her experience
Initiated nearly simultaneously a sequence,
A parallel tendril, this other infant, this baby
Dragon, this tiny leviathan of words, poor,
Entangled, ineptly self-consuming creature,
Ourobouros with the tip of its tail poking
Clean through the back of its skull, still
Growing in the shade of her growing tree—
Twins, in a manner of speaking, as twinned
As any constellation so named, as any
Constellation to its name, the tree daughter
And these phrases curled around her roots.
Ah, how many variant scales rotate around
That image of the tallest tree in the forest,
The forest in the desert, desert in the night.
Night. Half turn. New life tightened the ties
To numbering, and a more careful counting
Of days began, one with all the turns noted,
Every calendar date considered, assigned
A poem of its own—growth against decline.
But we must keep a sense of perspective.
If my daughter is world to me, these poems
Flying around her a part of her atmosphere,
I know we are all together little things, little
Even in an only-human scheme, aphorisms
In a slender sheaf tipped into a dull volume
In one massive, crumbling, underfunded
Library of an increasingly weak empire
Where universities are shortly to be burned.
Just to justify rescuing us would require
Explaining each aphorism, when explaining
Any aphorism is explaining a joke—once
You have disassembled the intricate bones
To show how the jaws work, you’ve broken
Its toothy capacity to bite. The smoke
From the latest wars and wildfires drifts,
And we tremble in the dark before the wind.
But that scale’s grim. Each our day begins,
All these mornings for our proffered souls,
Proving the minuscule pebble spins. Count
Our blessings. The fulcrum of the world
Holds, even if the world itself slows—even
That helpless newborn is now a sturdy girl,
That kitten has grown to become a fine cat,
And some poems continue, cooly, to uncurl
In skeins while life remains to foolish sages,
Breathing beings fond of counting the days.
May small contentments spin a while this way.

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