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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.