Prime Time on Alpha Centauri Bb
Early TV broadcasts could now be traveling through star systems more than 400 trillion miles from Earth. —item, Newsweek
As a child I could view a type of world through the window
of a Philco TV, black and white, how I thought for a time.
The news and its gravity, bloodless model families, ads
for cigarettes and conveniences—all moved in grayscale
dreams of interplanetary travel unfolding in a scripture
of themes from the Old West and the new prosperity
singing jingles to oven cleaner and floor wax. I went along
for the ride, like anyone offered a trip to the stars
and imagined lives filtered through the infinite space between
those stories and the world I was being launched into.
Still mapping the sky, I rocketed into a twilight
where darkness was no longer out there but within, my skin
an uncertain border I crossed at light speed
like mysterious discs over southwestern deserts.
Near Alpha Centauri someone’s watching
an anthropological study that left Earth as reality
TV, the fleshy primitives a cluster of strange stars
anyone here can see any night of the week.
Some of what bombards Arcturus is clearly about
starships and hope, encounters between alien cultures,
the images spreading a canvas so like the tiny lights
arranged above them, they can almost chart the distinct
shape to each narrative that, even untranslated,
has an arc as smooth and sure as a comet.
In the Aldebaran system, one of the bull’s eyes in
the constellation Taurus can see the Brooklyn Dodgers
again splitting a double header with the Cincinnati Reds,
Ebbets Field, August 1939, stick and ball recognizable symbols
even from grandstands 80 light years away.
We imagine whatever is out there to be conquerors
ready to enslave whole galaxies, or galactic gurus
ready to guide us out of our visceral blood knots.
I expect them to be better than me, more advanced somehow,
evolved, a type of being I could become if I stopped
being human. Maybe out there they know something
we don’t. Maybe they’ve never had a God or a genocide
in its name, their sense of meaning embodied in some form
of mathematics or quantum mechanics. They could be
invertebrates, floating in transparent cylinders like politicians
in the instinctive and shifting current of the mob.
They may have no instruments to capture what we’ve been
and done, but however they process what we call sound,
they understand the notes that open The Twilight Zone,
an interstellar pattern that makes them wonder
about us and our veneration of conflict and excess.
On the other side of the Milky Way, they could be creating
their own Jersey Shore, still stuck on the beach after
dragging themselves from some methane sea after eons of evolution
and now, like a boy gazing into the night sky, trying
to decipher the invisible mist flowing through the air
as the old stars blink and burn, releasing new myths.
Purple bursts signal the scent of lilac as a 10 a.m. sun
clears a neighbor’s trees. Hostas are exploding from
the darkness of shade like supernovae, and the Japanese
maple’s burgundy bows over the murmur of water
cascading into a pond. The sky’s low-humidity blue
is the color of royalty, a mantle without wrinkles.
Yellow jackets buzz orbits around flaming coneflowers
as sparrows flash like comets from birdbath to feeder,
chirping signals that move into the ether like photons.
The same daylight that illuminates all this blocks my vision,
convinces me the atmosphere’s dome is an umbrella,
a false ceiling that keeps me grounded and holds me in,
separate, distinct, something less than what the night reveals.
I can’t see beyond this immaterial trick of light. A slow
turning will reveal that everything remains in its place,
that I am the equal of dust kicked up by a truck going
down the alley, my bloodlines long even without
surnames or tribal allegiances. I take comfort in
the sky’s lapis illusion, the one that reassures me while
overhead, patient and unseen, the Pleiades remain
with no concern for my blindness to their eternal presence.
When You Wish Upon a Sun
I can watch the stars for hours and never see
another person. This is all right. I don’t expect
to find people in the night sky, certainly
no one I would recognize beyond an outline
formed by imagining lines between points
of light and sketches the ancients gave
stories and names to as they came to recognize
the placement and regular patterns in
the turning of the seasons, long before we
stopped being the center of the universe.
The stories were good ones, of bulls and lions,
twins, lives in balance, hunters and sisters who
became more than the light in a father’s eyes.
Still, if I look more closely, something more
emerges from the darkness, an understanding
of scale that seeks a voice. I am staring at
a sun that died a thousand years before this
moment on the dark side of a small world. It threw
its energy into the void between us, and I feel
it now, arriving like a response to a wish
I made as a child, one I don’t remember now.
Told the reliability of stars, I never knew
as I stood in a back yard’s damp grass that I
was in fact wishing on a sun. Which you must
admit lacks the sense of wonder and romance
conferred on stars. But if I had known,
would any wish have been less likely to come true
Steve Abbott edits Ohio Poetry Association’s annual journal Common Threads and is a founding member of The Poetry Forum in Columbus. Once, gazing at the Milky Way from a dark road on the Yucatan Peninsula, he fell over drunk on true starlight.