Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Blue Watch

“For the first time humanity saw its home from afar,
   a tiny, lovely and fragile ‘blue marble’ hanging in the blackness of space.”

                                       Roger D. Launius, NASA History Office


It has passed, the arrow of bright hope,
That hurtled men to stand upon the Moon –
A generation has grown up, it has gone on,
Between the Pioneers, Apollos, and Voyagers
Swinging round the planets taking pictures;
The tackle, loaded like a slingshot, careens
Across the currents of the waves of space---
The Voyagers are sailing off, going out
To meet with incoming heliopause
At the farthest reaches of the solar wind,
And orbit finally on some distant track,
Out of sight, no doubt, when fuel’s spent.
Those of us born fifty years ago
Grew up with all this space exploration,
Techno-magic creamed with some philosophy . . .
“We come in peace,” we said. Did we?


Twelve men, in time, visited the Moon;
All later voyagers were unmanned
Explorations for still-life imaging
Of planet neighbors scarred in fire and raging
Storms of methane, ammonia, sulfuric acid --
Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter and its moons,
Intriguing Titan, Uranus, and the blue Neptune . . .
The retreating ships beam vast knowledge back,
But steeply pitched with new unease
Concerning life: it’s not apparent elsewhere.
Small in the universe, the Earth is vast to us –
With rare animal intelligence and life.


Almost seven miles per second --- the Apollo,
A quarter of a million miles, three days,
When the Eagle landed on the Moon.
It tapped a man-sized point, that beak,
Against a frozen oval of transparent glass
And zigzagged fracture-lines in space --
The hatch opened, ejecting human,
To a fledgling dream beyond
The pale blueness of the living world;
The hole big enough to shove him through,
A shattering he slipped through awake.
The globe from whence he hurled
Glimmered on the horizon of reflection --
He saw it now: it was his world.
It pierced his heart like a thought,
But he would make the step to think,
And walk where the body’s lighter weight
Must plan a careful putting-down of feet;
For any sudden step could mean a jump.
His actions to himself seemed half-asleep,
A clumsy translation from the life he left.
Moonlife reflected back his former living;
Its lesser weight increased his thinking.



“Neil Armstrong” –  first man upon the Moon.
Think of his name, kneeling, strong-armed;
It reverberates in the ancient regolithic dust.
His time there halved in two—the “swift rush
Of events that brought me here, our lives,
Against the ponderous parade of the aging universe.”
The “ponderous parade”! To hear the blues
Swinging from one lifted lid, surprising the dark
Vast podium full of black pianos!---
A “ponderous parade” indeed – a score
Fifteen billion years performing, less or more.
He could not linger long to hear the music,
But did his work in earthrise, in little time,
To see, sample, measure, and plant a flag --
To do the work he came for and be gone.

“We come in peace for all mankind,” he said.
“One thousand, nine hundred and sixty-nine—
The years make but one-twelfth of the Great,
As the earth scribes its circle in the sky…
A thousand generations brought us here.”
But then he said another, curious thing.
“Man must understand the universe,”
He said, “in order to understand his destiny.”
I rather doubt it. Can the universe
Tell us where we've been and where we're going?
Echoes of speech, passed along the centuries,
Are more likely teachers of our freedom and our fate.
Perhaps a bit too much philosophy for this place. 


Unexplained, why the heat upon the sun’s atmosphere
Is so much hotter – by millions of degrees –
Than upon its surface.  I do not know why,
The farther from the furnace the hotter is the heat,
The nearer to things, the more distant they become;
The deeper into creation to go yet meet ourselves.
Paradoxes split to two, break to either-or,
Like particles of physics swimming in the mind,
Always something novel, smaller, anti-, other—
But what if this peculiar envelope of warmth
Surrounding the sun’s cooler rosy core
Unseals no message of particle or paradox,
But impresses on the physics of the mind
A moral chromosphere?  Participating--
Not to question nor to answer but the meaning
In which the asking and the answer hang,
So slim, living-seeming, upon the watch-chain.

And if we are alone . . . what then?
John Wheeler said—“If this is chance,
What more could purpose have accomplished?”
Chance and purpose chase around such paradox,
But even Wheeler turned too many times with it,
As if he were geared to the turnings of his name.
“In genesis is observership.” Is this it?
Where does it lead except to a deeper mire,
Of knowledge the same as self-mirroring?
Creating as observing – it sounds absurd--
Can two terms do the work of God?--
At least take the courtesy of a third:
Observing is participating in Creation.


Farther and farther now the modules
Orbit round the reaches of our star.
The Moon-travelers have all returned;
Another generation stands beneath the sky.
The Hubble sweeps the Swan, uncovers nurseries
Where a million baby stars are being born;
Farther and farther off their reddened cry
Drops away from these horizons of the watch;
Every moment holds this moment’s going
Down deeper rivers of the search
Into the tropics of the universe.
What’s born behind that Hubble seeing eye
Is now and yet to come . . . the Hubble is a watcher too,
Mounted on a starry carpet taking picture hallelujahs.



Our Earth is traveling out towards Hercules
Swinging round its hidden sun, with all hands
Clasped upon the swinging chain.
So far, the universe tells of frozen waters—
And myriads of flung-out molecules
That suggest—so hauntingly!---
A story dying down on the verge of telling it,
As though some wanderer staggered to the firelight
And collapsed with infinite promise upon the ground.
Such visions recall the tenses of the universe,
Pluperfects and subjunctives, the could-have-beens;
Spectrally they shudder on our instruments of sound.

Try pinning down uniqueness;
Try imagining it as human and alone,
A bit detached but always in between,
And connecting everything.
You would have an easier time
Thinning out the windings of a superstring,
Than to figure out the need
For speaking, and what speaking means,
Yet a whole world hangs upon these ends.
                        . . .  And hangs, and hangs,
In the blue darkness of a teeming brain
That captioned the dark marias of the Moon
With the imprint of a foot. It was the best
We could do. It might  have been the end
Of something, not the start of something new.


Three years, twelve men, the Moon—
We catch the sense of it on waking up.
The last manned flight was in 1972.
There was a war in Southeast Asia—remember?—
It cost some three hundred billion dollars.
All the Apollos of the 1960’s came to twenty-four,
Billion, that is. Space exploration may be costly;
But much costlier are the plans of military men.
The bombs they build could put an end to everything.
Who cares? Space travel prods us into waking;
But empire wars prolong the dream of power--
Into this sodden sleep so many now are sinking . . .
The end of exploration is anti-apocalypse,
Not an opening of the eyes, not an uncovering,
Not a going-out into the heavens of awareness
On swells of navigation’s steady watching--
But the closing of the compass, rolling up
The maps imagination made with math.
Why should the end of starships spell the Sphinx
Who looks out on the void with shuttered eyes?
When maddened empires are on the march
Eyes are always covered lest they see too much,
And the skip of heartbeat chokes off in the throat.
In that strangled desert lie all our best advances.


On the blue watch swinging in the censer
Incense rises through the darkened nave.
On her breast and shoulders perfumes of ocean
Warm her winds in waters blue and green,
Though clouds and rain may mark her moods
And days she turns with sun and seasons;
Her hands holding snow-stacked poles
Are steadied with the forest-gloves
Fitting on her arms like calf or kid;
She doffs them in the shedding leaves
Their living makes of air we breathe.
So very few have seen the elegance she is.
For sure, the moon-voyagers have returned
But what they saw still eludes our minds---
The blue watch throbbing on our pulse,
One earth life jewel of the starry sky—
Even Galileo missed in the swinging censer
Seeing her balances on which all depend,
And gazed in wonder on other moons than hers.
Caryl Johnston---poem composed in Philadelphia, circa 2003
Pictures courtesy of NASA--the astronaut pictured is actually Buzz Aldrin.
Initial design at the heading by Caryl.