Monthly Archives: June 2012

Photo credit: Arddu.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

–from William Blake’s “The Tyger”


Walking in the woods
behind the zoo late at night,
I know the tiger
is curled in the back corner
of the fence
where he always is.
During the day, the dog
whets the tiger’s appetite
by swinging in close
then flinging back out
into the clusters of oaks.

Even at this safe distance,
I am thinking about
what I can’t see in the dark–
its brilliant orange accreting
heat into the surrounding woods
and the horizon of its teeth,
a threat to fearless wanderers
crossing too close.

Even at this safe distance,
I am convinced
that the honeysuckle
in the daytime air
now gone
has been consumed
by its unseen mass.

Earth as the “Pale Blue Dot,” part of the solar system “Family Portrait” taken by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. Credit: NASA/JPL

I ride
my question
out on a wave
or pulse
or rocket
to where sound

In the pitch
I untether it
the payload
of smaller

A yardang
or crater
or icy ring
on a dot
beyond my vision
an adequate

Adrift on
this jetsam,
I am something
a casual
of giants–

or force
or pull
back to
I stood.

Professor Stephen T. Emlen of Cornell University in the planetarium. (The indigo buntings are in the funnels around the projector.)
Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

Caught in their funnels,
the indigo buntings
have no choice
but looking up.
the North Star
clings to a dome
from which the sea air
is missing.

It is always night:
the time of flying.

With inked feet,
the birds stamp out
the direction
of desire,
furiously marking
the ancient route
towards birth

or away from it.

Everything hinges on a single
point of certainty
and its few attendant
clusters of stars.

The scientist pulls a star
from the known sky

then another

and another

so that the Little Dipper
disconnects from its center

and Cassopeia dissolves away
from the reassuring “W”
children know.

The birds watch
the final constellations
ground down into a grit
of random stars

any one of which
may lead
to an island
in an ocean
somewhere beneath their feet.


Emlen, S.T. 1975. The stellar-orientation system of a migratory bird. Scientific American, (Cover story) 233:102-111.

Major thanks to Francis Reddy–science writer on contract with the Astrophysics Science Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md–for solving the mystery of the Lunar Orbiter poster I purchased from the University of Maryland Observatory yard sale!  (The complete backstory of this poster is provided in the earlier post “We interrupt this poetry blog to bring you a mystery.”)

Here’s the information from Francis and a copy of the poster which he so kindly labelled:

“Here’s the solution to your Lunar Orbiter challenge. This is a Lunar Orbiter II medium-resolution image taken 44 km above Sinus Medii. The centerpoint of the image is not far from the Surveyor 4 & 6 landing sites (the region of both sites is included in the shot, which may explain why it was significant enough to someone to survive). I’ve attached a version with a few labels for features I could securely identify. More info:

Mission:               Lunar Orbiter 2

Spacecraft Position:

Altitude:              44.19 km

Latitude:              4.15°

Longitude:          -0.31°

Principal Point (seems to correspond to the center of the horizon for this oblique view):

Latitude:              0.21°

I’m including a Digital Lunar Orbiter Photographic Atlas of the Moon photo (Photo Number IV-097-M) for the view from 2700 km away. (Credit: NASA)

Longitude:          -1.10°


Sun Azimuth:     90.39°

Incident Angle:                 78.00°

Emission Angle:                72.31°

Phase Angle:      76.23°

Alpha:   -24.68°

Link to frame and higher-res images of the area:

USGS maps based on Lunar Orbiter imagery, with named features (Sinus Medii straddles the equator, hence two maps needed):

Captain Cook’s and Charles Green’s observations of the 1769 transit

Caught in a jar,
a beetle can outlive
Venus’ transit
but not the encore.
And so this poem is about
and beauty
though mostly death.
Captain Cook in Tahiti
committed to ink
the enormous sun
and its lesion.
Cook and his men
and all the others
all dead now
despite their industry.
Even they knew
their images were
memento mori
to tuck away
in lockets of memory.
And later ones
exposed it
to photographic plates
strung together
as se-tenant frames.
Even they were dead when she returned.

Photographic plate from 1882 transit (Credit: US Naval Observatory)

And so the proximate
beauty becomes the thing
seen and released
into whatever jar
will hold it.

The ending is so predictable.
Venus will pass,
and I will watch
the slow reveal
from the parallax view
of the living.
This moment
will be just
a clip
from the grander movie
many parsecs long
in which dim planets and galaxies
emerge from the thicket of stars
and this small passing.