A Different Kind of Light


The Poets and Writers prompt for this week suggested using these words as part of a poem: promenade, mettle, flap, arbor, azimuth, heap, mast, foxgrape

I hardly knew what half of those words meant. But looking them up led me to some other memories from my college days. And it ended up not being a poem. 

During a winter in New York we gathered at dusk in an old building, high up on the 8th or 9th floor, to observe the stars. Science-illiterate, humanities majors stuck in astronomy lab, taking turns to try and make out amidst the night sky, which was never completely dark in that city, all the famed constellations and stars we knew the names of but were never able to see.

On the roof, it was cold as we nursed the telescope. We never understood the lesson but we were always eager to watch. The city lights, the lights of the university and the campus promenade, spread out under us, the fervor of those streets attempting to reach up into the darkness where we stood rubbing our hands together and peering upwards.

Azimuth is a word I’m sure we encountered, with our graphs and measuring tools. Formulas I would learn and forget in a day’s time, heaps of numbers I couldn’t interpret. Azimuth. Arabic for “direction,” like rediscovering an old lullaby drowned in the passing of time, or a name hidden in the flap of a book. Like the name of the girl who sat beside me at the long wooden table, with the long black hair  and whose nails were the color of foxgrapes. I looked at her fingers and decided she played the violin. She came in one evening carrying the black case of that instrument. That evening we measured the distance between each others’ eyes, but I don’t remember anymore what the experiment was.

“High mass stars are like the hare, they burn out quickly. Low mass stars are like the tortoise: slow, steady winners of the race.” 

We lent to astronomy our indifference, and went off to study Shakespeare or win debates. We had no mettle for the significance of things outside of where we were grounded, rooted in an arbor of old dead authors; we went to find illumination in texts and old books in the dusty stacks of the secret alcoves of the library. Like navigators at sea without a mast, tossed out to find different shores. Explaining the universe’s rules the only way we knew how, with fables and metaphors.

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