Sci Fi Child

You probably don’t, but sometimes I wonder how many poems there are about black holes

At least for a long while, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine used to accept and print poetry, and since I have more than just a couple poems arising from either science or fantasy/sci fi, I probably should have sent them some years ago. Maybe yet. For now, today’s post will include a pair of poems arising from science.

Tripping back though Time…

My father was a science teacher. I recently subbed in science classes and felt a little rush of recollection about my dad.

When I was little, when we lived in Port Byron, Illinois—so close to where I live now by coincidence—, he was a Traveling Science Teacher. I don’t remember the timing exactly, but I would bet it was in the years right around 1960—part of the effort our government put into the improvement of science teaching after the Soviet Union put Sputnik into orbit. Those heady days of American shame as the Soviets clearly plowed ahead in the as-yet-unnamed space race prompted lots of innovation in U.S. schools—for science and mathematics. The Traveling Science Teacher program was part of that great all-American quest to catch up.

a typical building in Spartan Village, MSU

(I am sorry that all you get is a link to the search I did; I did learn that the program ran from 1957 to 1961—a pretty good match to my memories—and there seems to be a connection to Michigan State University, possibly explaining my father transporting us all to East Lansing for his Masters work in the mid-Sixties. Spartan Village, MSU married student housing, is a big element in my childhood, even if we were only there for a few summer sessions. I fondly recall not eating tomatoes for supper, digging a long cave—to China?—on a hillside, attending summer school nearby, trying to eat crab apples, watching fireworks from my bedroom window, attending and being terrified by the Peter Cushing The Hound of the Baskervilles, playing toy soldiers with my first black friend—and being blissfully unaware of any importance in his race. Janet even had to endure me revisiting that past by touring through the more modern-day Spartan Village—even identifying one of the locations where we lived!—on our first trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. —I hid three links there on Stratford.)

As a TST, my father developed (or learned) a whole wide range of science tricks and stunts to use in his lectures at the schools he visited. I remember him trying out some of those demonstrations on us and the multifarious equipment packed into his several green footlockers for travel. Even more than a decade later, he still used some of those stunts. I helped him set up his room one late summer while I was in college, when he taught in New London; he showed off his room-sized pendulum which swung from one corner to another across the room. Treating me as a student, he had me stand on a chair in one corner with the massively heavy weight held against my chin and release it, staying quite still, head back in the concrete blocks of the corner, to learn that the pendulum effect prevented the weight from actually returning to smack and bloody my chin on any of its swings. We learn by doing! (A lesson that I tried to practice in my own teaching career—kind of difficult for instruction in reading and writing, at least when ed experts oppose “doing” to “reading.”)

Science stuff lay around our house, particularly during my elementary years in Rock Island, making for great playthings (probably much to my father’s consternation and chagrin). In fourth or fifth grade, at Christmastime, brother Paul and I got dropped at a downtown movie theater for a matinee extravaganzas—probably designed for parents to shop for Santa Claus gifts while we were safely contained at the theater—and in the extra activities beyond the movie I won a chemistry set (of which I am sure my dad approved and with which we never did any approvable “experiments”). Lots of scientific allure surrounded my youth.

And my sister Margaret got me reading science fiction early, too. I was started on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian series while still in upper elementary. Burroughs opened an entirely new reality to me—much more colorful and vivid than the Hardy Boys or the historical nonfiction and biographies I had been reading from the Rock Island Public Library. I devoured all the Mars books, Pellucidar, Venus, pretty much everything… And from there it easily a small leap into real science fiction (starting with an Ace Double that I bought for myself in Olivet—it was •G-580 SF Mack Reynolds Dawnman Planet / Claude NunesInherit the Earth ©1966—thinking of Mack Reynolds may inspire a politoc-economic post soon…).

Science + science fantasy + science fiction yields… me? Interestingly, coincidentally (one last link before we get to the two poems for today), Asimov’s currently has a featured editorial by Isaac himself on science fiction poetry. Check it out here—much more interesting than my selfish reminiscences.

Now for some verse:

Startime

imagined black hole

Yes, bluewhite―the stars:
fusion
gravity wells,
possibly imploded now,
falling outward toward the future,
downward into time,
making helium and steel―the stars
crying light cross the satin sky.

Bend time for me, black gravity,
and bring me to that dire place,
intense with weight―no escape―
where I’ll have time, when the clocks stop,
to learn her eyes and love those sighs.

21 April 1980

First, let’s credit the entirely readable source for the picture: J. M. Connell’s blog.

As for my bit of old verse, it’s just a love poem, pretty standard issue, really. The interesting part is the Carl Sagan-inspired physics of the first stanza and the use of the notion that time might stop on the event horizon (although probably only true for distant observers, not for a lover hanging over ultimate gravity). I have a story—the oldest one I still work on and a twist on Shakespeare for the plot—that uses the principles of stellar evolution, perhaps leaving the last stars in the universe giant lumps of iron or steel once they burn out (if the universe goes on expanding forever)—as the basis for a Universal Encyclopedia that starfaring humans contribute to while in hyperspace. I thought this idea up in the late Seventies, while visiting my friend Kevin as a grad student in Iowa City, inspired by Asimov’s Foundation series, and now there’s Wikipedia. Windows 7 may not be my idea (I haven’t even tried it), but…

By the way, you have read better science-inspired poetry by me, back at the beginning of this year, here. The original moon landing made as big an impression on me as anyone—staying up late to watch those grainy pictures from 385 thousand kilometers/239,000 miles away. The poem arose, not quite a decade later, from reflections on Armstrong’s attempt at immortal nobility (“one small step…”) and reading in Joseph Campbell about heroic quests and boons. It’s also much more controlled than either of these later attempts today, a regular and pretty well-turned sonnet. I impressed myself at the time (and now) by how easily the rhymes come into place—with not much forcing at all. But enough of poems from the past, let’s turn to our second selection today, continuing a Sunday theme of embarrassment for me.

abusing science

For our other poem, we turn to my return to science in the late Seventies and Eighties. Inspired by Jacob Bronowski’s still-thrilling science series on PBS, The Ascent of Man, I started some serious reading on science (especially physics) in popular-science books for a long time (still continuing). Sometime shortly after I moved to Maquoketa, I picked up Einstein’s popularizations of his theories of relativity, and from that reading came this poem (misappropriating his phrase for my title), also inspired by watching morning TV—once I had gotten a television set (tiny old black-and-white model) about a year after I moved to town. This poem is also pretty standard in its sentiments (and noticeably not as good as the first one, by the way; don’t feel awkward if you notice its certifiable juvenilisms).

a practically rigid body of reference

There’s a poetry
in the televised motions
of winter dawn pedestrians
on Today in New York City.

A music unwinds
in the electrical conversations
between the hemispheres
in this cranium
which cross-connected see
no princesses in denim
nowadays: girls
cruise in Camaros and
love imbeciles.

(laughter never makes a mystery
and beauty doesn’t cry.)

The sun’s not rising, rather
the streets twist
to the east,
as that mediocre star
shoots somewhere through deep space.
An egg exploded: proteins
should not think.

A rhythm flatters itself
all night all day,
iambic lies.

9 January 1979

I’m not proud of this one except for little pieces, a turn of phrase here and there. I like the first stanza for both its simple observation and the sounds that express it, and the first five lines of the second work in ways I would improve over the year or so ahead. The rest is really trite, and I have no idea what woman or girl or whoever I might have had in mind for that remarkably puerile lack-of-observation which ends stanza two. I almost cut out the parenthetical lines but decided to be honest about my former self (and I sigh with shame). The fourth stanza kind of works, but it’s still immature. And the last stanza leads toward a place I explored better and less obviously in poems to come. However, as a document of what little effect my reading could actually have on me, there it is.

For tomorrow, mostly because it will be easiest, let’s return to the third part of the as-yet-untitled horror story…

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

5 thoughts on “Sci Fi Child

  1. Thanks, Shark (clearly you like the ones I write about myself—which I had assumed were kind of presumptuous of me and self-centered—and of no interest to anyone else).

  2. Hi John,

    Wandered onto your website for several reasons. (1) Your were writing about poetry. (2) You were writing about science. (3) You use the name Wakdjunkaga (American Indian Trickster character). I am a scientist that writes poetry (about science). I have also composed a poem about Wakjunkaga (same character, slight spelling modification) that is becoming quite popular on the http://www.WritersCafe.org website. So if you have some interest, check me out. I found your write quite interesting and entertaining.

    Best regards,

    Rick

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