January 28, 2010
Orion does a one-handed handstand over the spire of St. Andrews. Balancing precariously on Bellatrix. Or is it Saiph? The maps are the wrong way round. Every night, later and later, and how come I’m here to see it? Not every night. Feel better calling it Te Waka o Tainui. But I live here. Where too it is seen as a canoe. Julpan. Makes more sense. Two blokes in Arnhemland, brothers, went fishing and caught one they weren’t allowed—up their boat went into the sky, a lesson to us all. Now I’m thinking of Noe’s waka snagged on the steeple of Ararat. When Joseph Banks went climbing on Tahiti-nui, 1770, he wondered if the Great South Land had somehow submerged and the peak he was on a remnant. He may have been wiser than he knew. We used to call it the pot. And that’s still what I think. First constellation I ever saw, or remember seeing. Out on the broken asphalt of the old tennis court at the Burns Street house. Held up in my father’s arms, probably, after we’d got out of the car. Whispering star, at once a hushed intake and an outgiving of breath. Amazed to see it, and to see it yet—but how could it be otherwise? The self-centredness of a child, rocking along the continuum of spacetime. The self-centredness of the universe. Anyway, the pot. Boiling up dark matter in its silver pan. If you enter the magnification of telescopes, you discover inconceivable fires, dust clouds, births of suns, the whole violent panoply of creation. You imagine the unimaginable. And you can. Every night. Then say the names: Rigel. Betelgeuse. Bellatrix and Saiph. Alnitak, Mintaka and Alnilam—they’re the belt. Don’t know what the stars of the sword are called. The Shepherd of Anu, the Sumerians said, they saw a crook in there somewhere. Uru-anna, the light of heaven: that may be where the word Orion came from. Or not. I see a pot. Then a boat. Then . . . a dancing man, or acrobat, pirouetting about a steeple. Later and later.
. . . clockwise and counter-clockwise turning . . .
When I was young, each Christmas Day and on some other days too we would get in the car and drive seven miles or so to the next town, Raetihi, to have late middle of the day dinner at the house of our friends, the Lawns. They lived on the other side of Raetihi, near the beginning of the road that leads to Pipiriki, in a small wooden cottage up on a hill; with a tiny, enclosed back lawn, hedges along three sides and the back of the house a fourth wall; and an image I have carried with me ever since is of myself and my sisters and the two Lawn girls, Barbara and Vicky, turning one afternoon on the Lawn's lawn. Enclosed gardens were and perhaps still are common in that part of the country; often the hedges were made of macrocarpa, which is still used as a windbreak on many of the farms. Wonderful hedges that you could crawl right inside of and then along; hedges where you'd find bird's nests with eggs or baby birds still in them; hedges where hedgehogs really did live. The image of us kids spinning on the lawn until we fell over dizzy and hysterical with laughter is one that I retain from our own grander enclosed garden at Burns Street; but that isn't what I'm trying to recall here. It's something different, something not quite so manic, another order of ecstasy perhaps: we are long and tall and pale of skin, luminous as Norns in the gathering dusk; the tremendous sky of those parts is close enough for us almost to touch its pearled blue-green air and yet as far away as the first stars just beginning to prick through; and we are dancing on the lawn as if at once unconscious and supremely conscious; as if, knowing nothing, we know all there is to know; as if the highest sentience is found in the most spontaneous action. I'm one of the kids on that tiny back lawn up on the hill behind the house at Raetihi; yet what I see in my mind's eye is a view from above as the pale children turn and turn, overcome by a solemnity that we will never remember, never forget; then the view suddenly telescopes and, even though the size of us kids doesn't diminish or not much, I'm rushing upwards, past the hedges, past the treetops, past the mountain and past the sky; finally, strangest of all, the thought comes that, alien, native or sojourner as I may be, in this image is the essence of the life on earth that I have known.
The sky through the Venetian blinds is the colour of Neptune. The pale blue of ponds and evenings, across which the errant moon, Despina, casts down her queenly shadow over the clouds of hydrogen swirling in 2100 kilometre per hour winds. I would close the blinds if I did not see, far away in the west, the faint sigla of our future happiness setting. It's hard to make out against that faded ultramarine but looks like a trident; which means I think that the sea holds whatever promise there may be for us now. I used to imagine Venus, I used to consider Mars. For half a decade now I've been haunted by Saturn, Cassini pictures beamed back across 8.833 A.U. directly into my visual cortex, scrambling the synapses until I saw rings wherever I went. Fingers, toes. Now I think of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. The Ninth Men, designed to live on the blue planet out there beyond Uranus: Inevitably it was a dwarf type, limited in size by the necessity of resisting an excessive gravitation . . . too delicately organized to withstand the ferocity of natural forces . . . civilization crumbled into savagery. The Tenth to the Seventeenth: Nowhere did the typical human form survive; yet the Fifteenth and the Sixteenth achieved a great civilization and learned to study past minds. Then there was the Eighteenth: Superficially we seem to be not one species but many. Extinguished with the rest of what remained of the Solar System in a supernova n million years from now. Or so the book says. As if the future might be written from the past, as if the study of past minds might reveal not this future but another: there have been so many worlds / between th bell & th blue star ! Neptune. I'm still going to close the blind and go about my business, but just before I do I take a closer look at that now deeper blue. And it isn't the colour of the sky. It isn't the sky at all. It's like in Quiet Earth, that blue planet has come down to this blue planet and we are having congress with one another. I hear the bells of St. Andrews, tolling out a final evensong. I see the black rags of birds flung up against the void. I feel the unholy chill of hydrogen creeping along my skin at minus 218 °C. Can you name that colour now, azurine, berryline, gridelin or bloom? I should close the blinds but don't: go instead out the door onto the balcony. I'll swallow blue or let it swallow me. A last thought: Raymond Chandler's favourite piece of American slang: Aw, turn blue . . . I do. And while there's still time step off into that darkening sky.