A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
In memory of Octavia E. Butler (June 22, 1947 – February 24, 2006)
In the bus bay, stark half-darkness of a ship corridor,
propellant smell of diesel. Clayark obliterates Greyhound—
blur of fur on metallic silver. Human is anything that stares
into your face, protects its young. A Sphinx-like riddle.
Our destination: Olamina, rallying cry from some slave field.
Then letters recombine: Lilith. We are lightyears beyond Eve.
Here, a tall black woman androgynous, head like a prow.
She has learned to lead anything through harrowing waves,
riding behind the driver, as sensitive tentacles turn the wheel.
Patternmaster of Patternmasters, straddling a sack at her feet.
Ten pounds of potatoes, enough to feed a starving artist,
nourish dreams of Earthseed. Buried talents, multiple eyes
reaching toward fingers calloused by telegraphing the future.
The bus—her frigate like a book—sparks, accelerator
beam illuminating landscapes. Post-apocalyptic California,
terraformed Mars, blood-staked planet whose colonists
reject the indigenous, the orphaned genius of love’s strategy.
Now dust gives way to a forest encapsulated in alloy,
like this rocking behemoth. The heart-engine of a star-flung vehicle.
I think I see Bigfoot walking gently with a young boy…
no, a wise Oankali, guiding the mixed-race son of a mother of worlds.
NOTES ON THIS POEM
1. A prolific and original writer of science fiction and speculative fiction, the African- American Octavia E. Butler counted a 1995 MacArthur “genius” award among her accolades. She died of a stroke at age 58.
2. The title “Next Stop: Xenogenesis” refers to Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago), with a nod to the introduction of the TV series “The Twilight Zone.”
3. Butler did not drive, and spent significant time riding buses. As a struggling artist living on a scanty income from temp jobs, she stretched her diet with 10-lb. sacks of potatoes.
4. A Clayark is a member of a powerful mutated human species, resembling a Sphinx. Clayarks descended from an astronaut carrying an extraterrestrial organism in Clay’s Ark, part of Butler’s far-reaching Patternist series (Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind, Survivor, Wild Seed, and Clay’s Ark).
5. Lauren Olamina is the visionary heroine of Butler’s dystopian duology, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, set in a broken and violent 21st century California.
6. Lilith Iyapo is the protagonist of Dawn (Xenogenesis trilogy), an Earthwoman rescued from nuclear holocaust by a highly adaptive alien race, the Oankali, in order to co-found a new race and planet of nonviolent beings.
7. “…sensitive tentacles…” The Oankali have tentacles for sensory organs.
8. A Pattermaster is the leader of a connected group of super-telepathic humans in the Patternist series.
9. Earthseed is a community and religious doctrine founded by Lauren Olamina in the Parable duology.
10. In the Patternist novel Survivor, Alanna—the adopted child of colonists who have escaped Earth—joins a native tribe, the Tekhohn, despite the resistance of her family.
11. In Adulthood Rites (Xenogenesis series), Lilith’s half-Oankali son Akin spends time on an Oankali spaceship—an organic construction, like a planet—with a wise Oankali known as an Akjai, who might be mistaken for Bigfoot.
12. Additional thanks to Ziggy Edwards, editor of Uppagus, who inspired me to write both this poem and “Bloodchild” (influenced by Butler’s time traveling novel about American slavery, Kindred).