Sunday, January 25, 2009

Stars wobble

This is a piece I started working on this past summer, through December. Not sure if I'll push it any further. Just felt like getting some observations on paper. Not sure, really, if it comes together. But at least it's a break from writing about winter...

(If you look closely, you can see one or two ants on the peonies in the photograph.)

The Science of Light

Stars wobble. Scientists believe that observable wobbling of a star suggests the existence of a nearby planet; the wobble is a result of the orbiting planet’s gravitational tug. Even though the planet is invisible, it’s there – the wobble is evidence of the existence of a body.

Outside, an ant navigates its way across the globe of a peony. The flowers – fat pink orbs – grow at an angle. They seek out the sun’s rays, which are obscured by a mature maple tree. The peony appears to be stretching, reaching for light. The gesture suggests elements of strain and urgency, similar to that of a horse extending its neck while running.

A flower is not a globe, a flower is not human. A flower is not even a horse. We name things to isolate them.

Although heliotropium is a particular genus of plants, over time heliotrope has come to mean any plant that grows towards the light. Names, it seems, can stretch.

A common typo: plant and planet, one substituted for the other.



That word, above – a corruption, alteration, disruption, enhancement, rupture, call it what you like, of the word light – is a poem, reproduced in its entirety. It was written by Aram Saroyan and published in a Random House collection, creatively titled Aram Saroyan, in 1968. According to the author, the book, comprised of short poems, could be read in one or two minutes. Edwin Newman, in fact, read it on the NBC evening news. That was not why the poem and its author became celebrated, however. After the poem appeared in The Chicago Review, Saroyan received a National Endowment for the Arts poetry award in the amount of $750. That’s $750 per word or about $107 per letter. Not bad.

Ian Daly, writing for the Poetry Foundation, said, “The poem doesn’t describe luminosity—the poem is luminosity.”

Jesse Helm, (helm, from the Old English meaning to guide or control), among others – notably William Scherle, a Republican Congressman from Iowa – saw red over the NEA’s award, and his outrage played a large part in making Saroyan’s poem one of the most famous in recent history. (Ask fifty people if they’ve ever heard of it, and you’ll likely get 49 negative responses. Even so: famous.)

Although it was ridiculed by others – Helm and Scherle being simply the most public and, one might argue, the most publicly ignorant – I’ve been haunted by that poem for 30 years. Is that what luminosity is – to haunt?
If you look at the sun and then close your eyes, an afterimage appears, a continuation of the light, as though the inside of your eyelids is a movie screen.

If you blink your eyes, you miss something.

Luminosity is the study of ghosts. What is left when the material body is gone? Some say light. Some say not.


Hummingbirds shine. Light bounces off air pockets in their feathers at different angles, and the clear bubbles of air act as prisms, making the feathers irridescent. Hummers have the largest hearts, proportionally, of any animal; a hummingbird heart beats between 500 and 1200 times per minute. (That upper register calculates to 20 times per second.) Meanwhile, their wings beat 25 to 75 times per second. They’re tiny, they’re beautiful, and they require lots of fuel. The Portugese call them “flower kissers” because much of that fuel comes from flowers. Procurement of nourishment – they eat while hovering – demands a long tongue and great stores of energy. Round and round they go, flying, feeding, courting, feeding, fighting, feeding. At night they become torpid, and some die in their sleep, exhausted, unable to restart their hearts.

I have a hummingbird feeder outside my study window. Many times an hour a hummer will arrive, hover, its wings whirring, take a few seconds to sip the sugar water, and then zip away. Sometimes two are in contention for rights to the feeder and there will be confrontations so fast that I can’t tell what’s happening. I’ll see two dark specks in a whirlwind and hear the whizz of their wings, there’s some quick vocalization, and then one speeds away and the other returns to the feeder. I’m not sure if they’re battling for turf, just saying hello, or participating in a mating ritual. But the noise is perpetually at my shoulder; I am always either anticipating the arrival of a bird or noticing it buzz away. The wing-sound becomes almost hallucinatory, incantatory, avian background music.

Hummingbirds shine, and swoop, and for just a few months of every year they are coveted visitors. They seem as fleeting as meteors, or the brief visitations of ants when the peonies are on the verge of bloom.

Visitation is, perhaps, the most bittersweet version of relationship. A visit, after all, is temporary. A meteor, one might say, visits for a split second – we spot it, but if we blink, it’s gone. The ants visit the peony garden for a few days. The hummingbirds visit my yard for a few months every year. Friends visit, family visits.

With a visit, there is always a leave-taking. Visits don’t last… ever.

To live requires a tolerance for the temporal. Visiting is a synecdoche for life. Or, to be blunt about it: we die.

How old are the stars? Between one and ten billion years. How long would it take to reach them? More than a thousand of our lifetimes.


I collect stones and bones. I collect them because they are beautiful. They are artifacts, and remind me of visits. I have looked inside the eye sockets of skulls of foxes, deer, birds. I have peered inside a turtle egg. I have broken open wasps’ nests, bee hives. Nothing shines inside these things, although there is light.

A cavity within a bone is called a labyrinth. Inside some bones you can see what looks like a honeycomb. A true labyrinth (as opposed to a maze) is not designed to confuse. There is a single path in and, therefore, out. In hiking, this would be called an out-and-back. Some labyrinths look like fingerprints. Others look like the folds of a brain.

My friend is recuperating from a brain aneurysm. He was sitting at his desk. He was fine. He saw a band of light, and then the light fizzled. It was like when a t.v. screen blows out – the light shriveled to a thin, staticky line, and then it was black. When I visited him in the hospital, our hands kept touching. We don’t hold hands in real life. But a body near a body, sometimes, is like a planet near a star. We wobble in our orbits. We lean towards. Sometimes, in my own lonely trajectory, I have a song in my head. Sometimes the song goes like this:
el aye
gee aitch
gee aitch tee.


  1. smart and beautiful and this side of heartbreaking

  2. I one heard that we all have a certain that we all have a certain amount of heartbeats in up, predetermined at birth, like ovum. And that once you beat all your beats, you are beat.

    I also heard once, that a hummingbirds wings move in the shape of the mathematical symbol for infinity.

    I dont know what to believe. Personally, I hope that hummingbirds really do experience time slower that humans. That our lives are some what menial in the hummingbirds imperial eyes.

    It is the fastest judgment possible, didnt even know you were being judged

  3. i think you found a good point to stop on, and i really enjoyed reading this. in fact i wrote three fast poems. and i got to use my accrued knowledge of astronomy, biopsychology, and some philosophy [okay, that's more opinion in my case]
    so i'm glad i read it.