2002: Marilyn Nelson, “Faster Than Light”

Because my son needed to use my car,
I had to take a taxi to the train.
Although New London is an hour away,
it was the best solution we could find.
After ten miles or so of idle chat
in which my occupation was confessed,
the driver said he was a physicist…
As a hobby,  he said: driving was his trade.
Still struggling to connect my seat-belt clasp,
I asked his opinion of an article
I’d skimmed last weekend in the New York Times,
about a man who researches time-travel.

He made that pffft Parisian cabbies make
in early August, when Americans
try to parlez avec them at rush hour.
He gave me a long over-the-shoulder glare,
squeezed the steering wheel, and hit the gas.
He said, He’s wrong. The one thing that would work
is to fly faster than the speed of light,
through a worm hole. The gravitational field
is full of holes: You only have to find
one,  and be pulled by metagravitational force.
For energy you could use compressed  sound.

( … or words to that effect. My memory

isn’t what it was ten minutes ago.)
He drove with ten white knuckles on the wheel,
his pinched blue right eye looking back at me,
Faster than light travel, that’s the secret.
The government’s been onto this for years.
This one’s almost used up; it’s time  to move.
We won’t take people  who don’t measure up,
Let them inherit the earth: We’ll take the skies.

(I still couldn’t figure out the seat-belt catch.)

The poor and ignorant population grows
so quickly … You’d deny their right to life?
There’s a fuckin’ holocaust of the unborn!
Some races and cultures just lack the gift
of scientific knowledge. It’s  the dross
of their stupidity which weighs us down
and holds us back. Faster than light travel!
Faster than light travel! The only way!

We hurtled down the turnpike, passing trucks
Faster than light!
and cars full of people
Faster than light travel, that’s the ticket!

Finally, we pulled up at the train station.
(I’d given up on fastening my seat-belt —
stupid contraption — trusting to
the universe to grant me more good luck.)
I scrambled out. We wished each other well.
(My tip was generous, if I do say so myself.)
Faster than light
, he yelled, late for his next
pick-up, zooming off, talking to his phone.
(My cup brimmed over with Psalm Twenty-Three.
Buoyancy’s sometimes stronger than gravity.)
I wheeled my luggage down the crowded train,
then found a seat and opened my magazine.

Some influence is affecting a space probe,
I read, which baffles scientists. It will
rewrite the laws of physics and astronomy,
when scientists understand  and name that force.
The plan was for Pioneer 10 to arrive
several million years from now, at some far place.
In case of alien contact, it carries a plaque
of a man and a woman, and a celestial map
showing Earth with a spear held  to her head.
Thirty years since Pioneer’s launch, it’s out past Pluto,
the farthest planet orbiting our sun,
in empty space 7 billion miles from Earth.

The article said current theories can’t explain
what’s causing the decrease in Pioneer’s speed.
It’s almost imperceptible, a mere
6 mph per century: Pioneer 10
is being pulled back to the sun. I closed my eyes.
Several million years from now. As if
a species on the brink of extinguishing itself
said to a future species, Remember me.
Remember who perfected genocide?
Will Science ever discover humility?
Why stop there? Why don’t you attack Knowledge,

while you’re at it? And how about Progress?
Ain’t that a bit ambitious, Miss William Blake?

What was that voice? Listen, Marilyn, listen:
as saints once listened (and, of course, the mad).
I looked around: the other passengers
were busy with laptops, breakfasts, books.
And where does it get off, accusing me? Ambition?
Why, I’ve surpassed every fantasy I had.
Would I presume to bad-mouth our attempt
to cheat death? My poems: a handful of dust
trying to get back to supernova.
Like every longing, everything alive.

Ambition wants the immortality
of a member’s-only country club Valhalla,
an eternal summit-meeting of great names.
Millions of light-years into the future,
that immortality ambition breeds
with serendipity: what will it mean?
Our poetry, our books, our language: dust
and words never again to be spoken.
I wonder what will last millions of years:
a stone? A nuclear waste storage site?
Will homo sapiens evolve, or die?
Will wiser thinking beings live on Earth?

We’re dying faster than the speed of light,
our fame forgettable. Will our good deeds
vanish like molecules of exhaled breath,
to be recycled by the universe?
Girl, get on back to the raft. When you try to think,
the breeze between your ears nearly blows me away.

The Muse again. So much for my magazine.
As if you ain’t been drifting all this time.
you’d know that what lasts is the hush of space:
the hiss of orbit, and the hum of stars.

If we could launch a space probe, I wondered,
would it take my last name engraved in gold?
My puny thoughts? My hopes for the future?
If I had to remain anonymous,
would I publish? Would I write poems at all?
(During the count-down of Anonymous,
poets scratch their initials on the hull.)

Well, Muse of my disposable poetry,
at least I’m not cluttering up a land-fill.
People whose aim is immortality,
poets who are ambitious:  Is it wrong
to want life after their death for their songs?

Leave immortality to cancer cells:
They don’t know when to stop. Just when they reach
the point of no return, the body dies,
and the cancer is returned to genesis.
Genes are programmed to reproduce and die.
Poetry, to be stuck on a synapse,
lucky to be a line remembered wrong.
Your work, projected into the future,
is pulled back to earth by dark energy,
that glue which binds the cosmos together . . .

From Stamford on, I no longer traveled alone;
my seat mates, a businessman and his cell-phone.

Commissioned by Eta of Ohio, The Ohio Wesleyan University Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, May 2002