Vox Populi

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Rebecca Elson: Antidotes to Fear of Death

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

In 1986, Rebecca Elson (1960-1999) was a young Canadian astronomer who had begun a post-doctoral research fellowship examining Hubble telescope data at Princeton. In the essay From Stones to Stars, which concludes her posthumously published and single poetry collection A Responsibility to Awe, Elson contrasted the discomforts of working in such a male-dominated environment with her pleasure in the openness and congeniality of Princeton’s poetry community. But she went on to add a significant qualification, that “the discussions there were also a reminder that, although I loved the unlimited licence to invent, I also loved the sense of exploring not an inner, but an outer world, that was really there, in some objective sense”. This poem seems to accommodate this dilemma, by working on a borderline between inventive “poetic” figures and more objective description, while never fully letting go of the former.

The opening lines are simple and striking. The speaker doesn’t merely lie on her back to look up at the night sky, as any non-astronomer might do, but, childlike, she “eats” the stars. She goes on to tell us how she eats them: she sucks them, and finds the taste “pepper hot and sharp”. This is purposefully visceral and immediate, and a summons to the child star-lover in herself, a tuning-in to the old excitement before academia took over.

She continues the “nutrition” metaphor with the word “stir” in the third stanza, but a change of approach is heralded as we’re invited to follow her into the early universe: “No outer space, just space.” And now poetic diction is reduced, the whole imaginative process more restrained. The biblical creation narrative is recalled, when the earth was “without form, and void” – yet the description, especially that of “the not yet stars”, feels logical and objective.

The alternative to stargazing and imagining, proposed in the fifth stanza, is “To lie down here on earth / Beside our long ancestral bones …” Because of the placing of the conjunction in the first line – “And sometimes it’s enough” – the activity is subtly emphasised. It’s at least as important as looking up at the stars to be aware of the horizontal neighbourhood, that of our “long ancestral bones”. The pun on “long” is beautifully judged here.

Elson doesn’t refute biological “science”. Dead matter is transformed, but kept interestingly visible in the reference to “cobble fields / Of our discarded skulls”. It’s an imaginative truce with fact, followed by speculation, and recourse to the soul-as-butterfly myth. Inevitably, the “bright wings” connect us to the “bright mist” in stanza four, as if a new creation might transpire from death.

Antidotes to Fear of Death is undated, and may have been written before the poet was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the disease from which she died at the age of 39. It’s the kind of intense engagement with death that an imaginative young writer might make, regardless of personal circumstance. As an act of generosity, like so much of Elson’s work, it includes readers by its imaginative accessibility and universal theme. Although “antidote” is a strong word, the poem has some power to challenge the individual’s fear of extinction with a wider, less egocentric focus on space and time. It lies just outside religious consolation, and just outside “scientific” detachment. Imagination is all we have to suggest alternative universes, a quality required for survival, for poetry, and for the hypotheses of science.

A Responsibility to Awe was first published in 2001, and was reissued in 2018 as a Carcanet Classic. To read Elson’s brave and gentle work during the current pandemic crisis is to take a fresh breath, and to see a little farther.

First published March 23, 2020 in The Guardian. Prose by Carol Rumens. Included in Vox Populi on a noncommercial educational license from The Guardian.

The Milky Way over Alberta, Canada. Photograph: Stocktrek Images, Inc/Alamy

3 comments on “Rebecca Elson: Antidotes to Fear of Death

  1. Jose A Alcantara
    July 13, 2020

    Thanks for posting this, Michael. I had never heard of Rebecca Elson, or of her book but I just found it in my online library collection. I’m in for a morning of good reading.

    I love the awe/all implication in the title.

    You said this: “the “bright wings” connect us to the “bright mist” in stanza four, as if a new creation might transpire from death.”

    For me, “bright wings” took me back to Hopkins:

    Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

    I can’t help thinking, as they each end their poems with those words, that that’s where it came from for her as well.

    Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      July 14, 2020

      Thanks, Jose. I love Elson’s work as well. The awe she has for the largeness of creation is very moving to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jose A Alcantara
        July 14, 2020

        Michael, I started reading her book yesterday. Some great poems in there. “The Expanding Universe” is a perfect poem. Thanks for expanding my world.

        Liked by 1 person

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