Portrait of Sir John Herschel
(Photograph, J.M. Cameron, 1867)
Take up the book, and I can still
lock eyes with the old astronomer,
eyes unblinking for a century
and longer, now fixed on mine.
Having looked profoundly
at the universe -- double stars
and nebulae, Halley’s comet ablaze
over Southern Africa -- he could
refocus to this intimate intensity,
vision leaping into light years
out of surrounding darkness –
scored brow, taut mouth inverted,
pupils bore through the page.
He tried to locate us in orbital relation
to the stars. How to measure
parallax: the distance we’ve traversed
since he last turned this way
his light-imprinted face.
The place that is made out of light
has already happened.
We have always lost it
whether we missed it by eons,
a tether of brightness curling back
into lapsed galaxies,
or only by the length
of childhood, smudged images
in a family album.
Or by the moment whose negative
floats up in the basin
to cancel itself
in the fluency of light.
Only a trick of light,
this pin-prick in the night’s
horizon, tracing the ancient shapes
of bear and hunter:
it happened only once,
so long ago that no one
could recall it, so far away
that we can squint through
this cold telescope, and watch time
curve into dark, an unremembered then
become our now. This winter night
in the schoolyard, brief constellation
of our children with us,
reminding us what we’ve forgotten
about Orion’s belt: this winter night
now yours and mine, our only star
to reckon with, or by.
A pinprick in thin cardboard
scatters tiny suns
on haphazard surfaces
as we pass it hand to hand
hey look we tell the kids
orbiting at tangents in their winter jackets
all of us squinting, not sure
if we saw it move
or if we’re looking at spots
and floaters on our own retinas
don’t look directly we tell them
see that bite out of it?
but nothing’s missing
that really is the moon