I. When the Smoke Rings Sail

Although it scarcely matters where he is,
He’s in Urbana, Illinois, tonight,
As he is on most nights; it’s where he lives.
Move to New York, they’re always telling him.
Or San Francisco, L.A., Washington
As if these places were appreciably
Nearer, somehow, to what he writes about.
Even his friends, they don’t grasp that all places
Are roughly the same distance when your subject
Is Time itself, the pure future …
Besides, he’s drawn to these Midwestern skies,
Clean and enormous, stars all the way down
To the horizon, where the very lowest
Float at eye-level and the illusion is
You’re walking to the stars.
                                            Most nights, he walks:
Studies the sky; hums a bit; smokes his pipe;
Under a streetlamp sometimes jots a note
Into his notepad; mostly, though, just walks,
Letting his mind wander. One night the moon
Called up a boyhood marble, rolling loose
Within the hold of some colossal ship
That might be thought of as a drifting speck
On a sea lit by a colossal moon.
He wrote that down. You never know …
He writes “boys’ books”—or so he’s sometimes told.
Well, true enough, his plots employ their share
Of rocket ships and anti-gravity
Devices, time-machines and -warps, and creatures
Spawned on far planets.
                                     Boys’ books? He won’t argue
The term, in any case, except to say,
Who knows—maybe the kids have got it right?
And maybe growing old is just a way
Of drifting from the truth. In Astral Children
He brewed a world where aging is a form
Of madness, and the sane stay young forever.
Whatever his books were, he wrote them fast,
A new one every year, with luck—and yet,
For all his speed, hardly enough to keep him
In pencils, carbon paper, pipe tobacco.
Invasion of the Mantis Men—that’s his,
And Time’s Knock; Old Earth’s Torn Mantle; The Gears
Of History
. Although they were his children,
He rarely glanced backward; no, his way was
The alligator’s—lay your clutch of eggs,
Kick some loose sand on top of them, move on.
Perhaps he liked The Teleminders best,
The one where scientists learn to project
Human-sized intellects into the brains
Of animals—a bear, a camel, even
Spiders and termites—only to discover
That these emancipated creatures, while
Keen to communicate among themselves,
Still want nothing to do with mankind …
Those typo-riddled books of his—cheap glue,
Cheap stock, cheap artwork—were all paperbacks,
Some housed within a sort of duplex, his own
Book with some total stranger’s book attached,
A two-for-one special.
Was not his forte, it seemed, though any man
With five ex-wives and seven children surely
Might figure at least one would live nearby,
Lending companionship when things turned hard.
Things have turned hard for him. Tonight he walks
Through his adopted hometown of Urbana,
Streets dark, stars bright (it’s very late—two, three,
The unwatched hours he always has loved best,
When the mind’s gravity loosens a little),
And what’s a man to do with such a sky
But launch a couple smoke rings that resemble
Little life-vests (he wrote down that one, too),
For little lives afloat on Time’s great waters?

Time is his element, who wrote The Clock
Of Ages, Dinosaur Robots, Big Minutes.
Time: it’s two weeks now since the diagnosis
Of non-Hodgkins lymphoma—a rare “oma”
Lodged in the lymph system and seemingly
Dead-set on killing him. (By definition,
Of course, what kills you is a rarity:
That one one-in-a-million exit door
That’s got your name on it.) Soon, in the blink
Of an eye—Thirty years? Fifty?—they’ll find
A cure for this disease; yet he’ll be gone
Before that blink occurs. (Which means? His death’s
One more accident of timing …)
Yet it turns out to be more difficult
Than he would ever have supposed to square
His personal extinction with the heavens;
It has grown hard to gaze up at the stars.
They agitate him in a way he hasn’t
Felt since grade school, back in those blazing mornings
When love—the real McCoy, a hopeless passion
Larger by far than he was—swept him so
Feverishly, his body shook with it.
It seems (wouldn’t you know?) he’d fallen for
The class queen, Betsy Wren, and couldn’t bear
To look at her, almost, and couldn’t bear
To stop looking: bold glances that avowed,
Others are bigger, stronger, even funnier
And yet, belovèd, I’m your most devoted.
That’s just the way the stars now make him feel;
He throws them pleading and assertive glances.
(I am the most devoted.)
                                      The cold stars?
Their coldness, too, is but an accident
Of timing: yes, their hospitality
Will be revealed in Time, his element,
Which flows unseen across the glittering
Riverbed of the sky. It’s all the heaven
He’s ever asked of Heaven: to see the stars
For what they are: half-submerged stepping stones
To zones some unimaginable race
Will homestead when the sun’s a guttered candle.

II. When the Smoke Clears

The mind, that rambling bear, ransacks the sky
        In search of honey,
Fish, berries, carrion. It minds no laws …
As if the heavens were some canvas tent,
    It slashes through the firmament
To prise up the sealed stores with its big paws.

The mind, that sovereign camel, sees the sky
        For what it is:
Each star a grain of sand along the vast
Passage to that oasis where, below
    The pillared palms, the portico
Of fronds, the soul may drink its fill at last.

The mind, that gorgeous spider, webs the sky
        With lines so sheer
They all but vanish, and yet star to star
(Thread by considered thread) slowly entwines
    The universe in its designs—
Un-earthing patterns where no patterns are.

The mind, that termite, seems to shun the sky.
        It burrows down,
Tunneling in upon that moment when,
In Time—its element—will come a day
    The longest-shadowed tower sway,
Unbroken sunlight fall to earth again.

III. After All

Cheap stock, cheap artwork—everything just
So deliciously cheap! They pull on me still,
Those sci-fi novels of the fifties,
And when in some used bookstore
On a shelf where old futures gather dust
I happen on one I knew before,
Years back, I undergo a little thrill

Of dislocation.
                            They pulled, originally,
On my father, who housed them in the attic, where
Each startling cover was privately digested
By a boy too young to read: pirate spaceships, and square-
Headed robots with ray guns, and heaving-breasted
Girls lashed in the arms of antennaed aliens …
What a queer place the future would be!

The few facts I knew about outer space
Haunted me. On those other planets, the ground
Hides a different gravity. You might float away
Like a balloon. The stars don’t twinkle. It’s always day,
Up there. And black as night. The dark vacuum
Would suck the air from your face.
If you cried out, there would be no sound.

… All those hours in the attic, devoted
To an eager, uneasy analysis
Of the lurid covers on my father’s shelves,
Left a lingering hunger, even now unfed—
A yearning for a place the books themselves
Couldn’t supply, since (it must be noted)
Most of those books are better left unread.

And yet, now and then over the years,
I’ve picked one up and read it, particularly those
Of the man found more often than any other
In my dad’s ragged collection: the author
Of Old Earth’s Torn Mantle and The Gears
Of History
and Big Minutes and Time’s Knock,
Who died one month before the launch of Sputnik.

Like most of his contemporaries,
He interests us for what was not foreseen,
The upheavals he failed to anticipate:
Book after book of his, the white race reigns
Unchallenged, sex is always straight
(But not straightforward), and women are keen
To fix the meals and be the secretaries.

(Oh those tart-tongued but true-blue
Gals of the twenty-first and -second centuries,
Dizzy and desirable as ever! You knew exactly
How they’re dressed without his telling you:
Blazing red lipstick, thick penciled brows,
Off-the-shoulder blouses, skin-tight capris,
Firm girdles and those pointy Fifties bras.)

And yet—of this I feel quite sure—he saw
The one subtending truth compared to which
All others dwindle: our human kind is passing away—
Being replaced—we’re replacing ourselves; we
Are the first species that has consciously
Shifted its ecological niche;
We exempt ourselves from Nature’s law.

DNA was unspooled in the year
I was born, and the test-tube births
Of cloned mammals emerged in a mere
Half-century; it seems the earth’s
Future’s now in the hands of a few
Techies on a caffeinated all-nighter who
Sift the gene-alphabet like Scrabble tiles

And our computer geeks are revealed, at last,
As those quick-handed, sidelined little mammals
In the dinosaurs’ long shadows—those least-
Likely-to-succeed successors whose kingdom come
Was the globe itself (an image best written down,
Perhaps, beneath a streetlamp, late, in some
Star-riddled Midwestern town).

He wrote boys’ books and intuitively
Recognized that the real
Realist isn’t the one who details
Lowdown heartland factories and farms
As if they would last, but the one who affirms,
From the other end of the galaxy,
Ours is the age of perilous miracles.

We’re learning to remake ourselves. We think
We see the danger; therein lies the danger.
The earth moves. It hauls to the light the dark houses
Whose sleepers wake to a dawn wherein
They do not know their children, or their spouses,
And the mirror above the bathroom sink
Returns the fixed, confident gaze of a stranger.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 8, on page 28
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