I finished work on my ‘Star’ poem last week, and performed it next to the art installation ‘RR Lyrae’ by Ann Veronica Janssens in Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery on Saturday evening. The night was brilliant: we had a reading by Michel Faber in the cafe, followed by a live art dialogue by Conch, then I did my poetry reading in the RR Lyrae installation room, and finally we had some great music from Found. I chatted with Michel about dogs and cats and life on Earth, sipped a gin and espresso cocktail, and enjoyed seeing friends there (thank you for coming, Anniken Blomberg).
I wanted the poem to talk about how it feels, spiritually, to be alive in a post-religious, scientific age. I found it interesting that the wave theory of matter corresponds with the ideas of the Illuminationists – an Islamic sect from the 12th century.
I’m posting the text of my poem here, and you can watch a video of the reading on YouTube here – have fun
This star is coming towards you,
running from the back of the sky.
You are waiting, not rushing, but only because
you have been here longer, and
this is as far as you could get. You’re at the edge
of the city, but still you circle it.
You’re going around and around on the ring-road.
You know your path – you know it’s fixed.
Once, stars were fixed to the sky – didn’t budge and
ball towards you: stayed pinned.
The night sky was a tent above your head,
farther above than all your ancestors, on shoulders,
stacked each on each, could reach: they tried.
Dark velvet, all the things you saw the grown-ups do
and the way they rocked you to sleep
in your bed, their arms, the car-seat.
They told you
where the stars were, that were out of reach:
they’d mapped them. Lie still
and let the canvas slowly spin.
Above, see constellation dreams:
men and women who did great things, beasts
the gods liked and put there.
(Before them, there must have been blanks in the sky.
Everyone came along just in time.)
The stars revolved around your bed, the gods
were many, strange, and lived in your kitchen,
where they made rules, and your dinner; lived
in summer branches – from which they kissed your eyelids;
lived in shadows, when they whispered
you’re on your own. You wouldn’t listen,
because you knew, and it was terrible. You ran
back to the heat of the light, your mum.
In a desert, God was meeting Abraham,
as you sat in front of the television.
Only one God from here on. A god
who was everywhere, in all things:
called by philosophers
the intelligent breath of the universe -
the reason why you existed, and why
whales, and rivers, knives, and stars.
Stars now were symbols of his greatness.
They still were firmly stitched
to the sky-cloth.
It was so hard for you to know
which way to go, and here were hints,
When you travelled in the desert,
you judged your course by them.
When your dad, the pilot, flew across the skies again,
Orion’s Belt was a runway prayer
to bring him safe back down again
among far-flung plantations. Promises were made
by both sides of the equation. Everything was balanced.
Everything could have gone on forever.
A star moved over the sky, by itself.
Everyone noticed it: how it flew across the winter
in a way that suggested normal rules didn’t apply to it.
It did not follow the slow rotations of the tent-cloth, it
veered above the Himalayan peaks, passed
last shreds of snow edging a khaki Afghan plateau,
dropped through the darkness of a world
with no aeroplanes or neon, beneath
better-behaved stars that stayed stitched above Judah.
Promises were done, complete.
Here was the remarkable man,
marked by a singular star, with light
to drown out the complications of the universe.
Here, too, was love. And it is true
we pass love on.
You grew colossal, stood
up to your father – you took him on.
You marked your own flightpath,
went gloriously into the tarmac dawn.
In the desert, a second revelation:
there must have been some big mistake.
The world hasn’t ended yet, so
the promise is not quite finished.
There’s something else waiting.
In Baghdad, Prince Mamun watched for it,
gave housing and instructions to his scientists:
‘Let us approach the divine
through our souls and intellect.
God, who gave the stars to herders
to lead their camels safely through the blank and wayless desert,
gave minds to us to know the end of time.
We’ll build a great observatory: unlock the heavens.
We will devise a meeting here of art and science.
There are signs in the skies, for those who learn to read them.’
The stars were countless-seeming -
thrown like sugar on a blanket.
But doggedly, the scientists
measured, named, and counted.
New worlds grew on their maps, they measured distances
with quadrants, saw the stars move separately, grasped orbits.
God had said a message was in there:
a thing they could find, if they looked for it.
As they stood beside their globes and astrolabes in darkness,
you turned to all the books you hadn’t read, the advice there.
Maybe you didn’t know as much as you’d thought:
here, you could learn something, or
go searching for your knowledge in the world.
You could go
to college, to work, Thailand or Spain. You queued
outside nightclubs, struggled to make your rent,
made friendships that felt fireproof (but weren’t):
you got to know about shame or betrayal.
Somewhere in this world was the secret in your existence:
if you saw enough life, you would find it.
You looked in all the bars, the heartbreaks and fights,
the snowy walks back towards warmth and a home.
You had an instinct, inside you – a sort of belief
that you’d turn out to be good – that the world would, too.
Because it seemed, when the snow fell around you,
when you were stoned, or drunk with your best friend,
everything was connected, and being connected
Astronomer-philosophers in the Middle East agreed:
all things were One, as their Qu’ran said: more,
things could not be made of atoms, nor could people,
rocks or cattle, atoms being too separate. There’s
light, only light is real, said the Illuminationists.
That must be the explanation -
everything is lit by life.
Some things fade back into darkness.
Light creates our matter then moves on, we decay.
So you went on, noticing how
the random routes you’d chosen
weren’t going where you’d thought they’d take you.
You’d thought you’d have arrived there by now.
But everything was different, in turning out –
the details became the basis,
a painting done in dots,
one for each day of your life -
a wage, not a prize.
There was the love you were given,
going about your routine;
the love you gave, in the spaces
between your labour and your sleep.
There was the raw, brave sweetness of
friendship in the face of capitalism,
illogical – giving your umbrella
away to your bare-headed brother in the rain-storm.
Doing things for no return
when you had so little, being
a generous beggar.
Placed in a small domestic lantern,
the hay-barn venerated the candle.
The age of searching for God was over, because
God probably didn’t exist: you couldn’t
see it, hear it, touch it. Stars became places
where you might meet other beings, aliens
took on the job of angel and of demon. The dream
lived on, in a projector beam: a race of people
holding secrets to our peace, peeking
down at Earth from a great distance -
in place of prayer, we used radio to reach them -
wondered, as before, if their silence
might imply their non-existence.
Split the atom, discovered it was made of
so many kinds of tiny particle.
The variety should not have surprised us.
The Big Bang had created us
by blowing apart the baby parts of the universe.
We had our very being in separation.
You began setting your dreams of oneness
in a place your life did not visit, but circled,
like a planet around a sun. You saw
no sign of love in the world. You drove
in your separate car, past the others on the bypass.
Sometimes light flooded you as someone
saw into you, going past. You listened to the radio -
music, the memory that sometimes,
people weren’t rational -
but the road was fundamentally about survival.
Yes, you know that the meaning of the journey
is in travelling; its pleasure, your companions; still -
you can wish there were more beauty in the road.
When you travel alone, your friends’ ghosts ask you
to remember the city you’re skirting,
the place you aren’t going to.
There are sandwiches and wraps in the petrol stations
and bright juice, a light that amazes you.
The universe at the smallest level
is almost infinitely separate. The oneness
felt with others, could be a survival mechanism;
feeling it with the rest of the universe
makes no sense – it’s a city you circle, a smattering
of lights, dancing, away from the monstrous forecourt.
You know the stars aren’t stitched
to a cloth that revolves around you: you’re not
going to be stupid. You drive off, down the slip-road,
content enough not to be smashing into the barriers.
There’s a sign: spelled out in orange dots, above you.
One of those ‘tiredness kills’ kinds. But
it’s holding a dispatch from some physicists.
We may have got it wrong, before, it says.
We now believe matter doesn’t exist.
And the next one:
The one true thing is space. For some reason,
it fluctuates: makes waves.
You’re perplexed. These waves
stabilise around centres we’ve called particles.
In fact, there are no real particles.
Only interconnected space.
p.s. This explains the forward movement of time.
And suddenly everything changes.
What was doing the lighting, is being lit:
the centre’s not
where you think it is. The road
is a creation of space, just like the city, like your hands
holding the wheel, turning it, tilting it.
© Sophie Cooke, 2015