Winter 1999, Volume 16.2
Barbara F. Lefcowitz
Barbara F. Lefcowitz (Ph.D., U of Maryland) has published five collections of poetry, a novel, plus short stories, essays, and poems in over 300 journals. She has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. Presently she teaches at Anne Arundel College, travels widely, paints, and is working on two poetry collections, two novels, and a series of experimental essays.
Of Cells and Stars
"There are a thousand times more cells in a human body
than there are bright stars in the Milky Way galaxy." —John Gribbin
Very late at night
I trade places with the Milky Way,
not by rising to the sky
or bending the galaxy into my bed,
but by musing how sapphires
strung on spiral chains
illuminate the space inside my skin
as if a collapsed molecular cloud
had spawned a profusion of bright blue stars
that, like cells, daily wear out and die,
but so rapidly replace themselves
my inner streets and plazas never darken
and all the bone-white buildings shine,
as if I contained a private Greek island
free from marauding tourists
that replicates itself until I can no longer
which leads me to wonder
about the possibility of malignant stars
madly reproducing, joining to make
enormous broods, each star,
like each malignant cell, immortal,
until en masse they overtake the galaxy.
My own billions of cells
then terrify me, make me wish I were simple
as the Milky Way, could take my place
in its clusters of chemicals and dust.
The same dark matter
that holds a galaxy’s stars
in its gravitational grip
so they will neither collide
nor break loose
binds the many bodies of my life:
the child wearing a bright wreathe of berries,
the girl tugged by moons that draw blood,
the saturnine young woman
kept captive by the blue rings of ice
that surround her days,
who at last gives birth to the bodies of others
tightly bound to her,
but only so they may achieve
sufficient light and mass
to unbind themselves,
seek their own place in the sky.
And now the wanderer
through forests, the intricate bark
of whose trees brings forth a sap
never suspected before; through cities
whose signs blink lines and curves
that favor not even the most faraway cousin
in her family of languages.
Though she finds her eyes nearly blinded
by the same cosmic dust that turns sunsets red,
she can see with utmost clarity
the child’s wreathe, the girl’s moons,
the young woman’s blue rings of ice—
the wanderer’s particles, waves,
and molecules intact
within her body’s sheathe of light
until her dark matter
begins to crack like old library paste,
first the harsh words, then stiff sentences
slipping bit by bit through the ripples
that form as the matter recedes
and the whole galaxy shatters,
an explosion so fiercely hot
the old text burns, blackens
to dark matter
in search of newborn stars.
Days resemble each other like family.
I speak not of their wind-chill
or barometric pressure, nor where their skies
fit on the color wheel, but of their inner weather,
which defies the maps and graphs of forecasters.
If I feel sad today, it’s because the day itself,
its shapes, sounds, and smells,
is first cousin of the day you said good-bye,
the day itself, not to be confused with the date.
And last week when I felt an otherwise inexplicable joy,
the day itself was that long forgotten aunt
who first pointed out to me
the silvery underside of birch leaves.
Even the most unremarkable of days,
distinct from each other as gradations
of white, gray, or black,
are familiar: cousins twice or thrice removed
from the days we spent swaddled
in milk-washed sleep, oblivious
to all but our small demands.
And those that seem the most unique:
twins of those unrecalled days
when something new—perhaps
a secret cleft or word—changed us forever.
Like all families, the days have their feuds—
brothers and sisters who would replay
their jealous accusations—
and some are downright dysfunctional:
drunk uncles threatening rape, their red-faced wives
howling from attics; children whose eyes
are hollow, having surrendered their lives
long before we were born.
Hence that occasional dread
on days when a round flower-sun shines
as in a child’s drawing
and I cannot help but see the dread
in the dark fringe of trees
at the day’s most luminous edges.
Everything that will happen
a year from now
has already begun its journey;
the seeds that will sprout into grain
for that day’s bread
have already entered the ground;
the grapes have already fermented
en route to a bottle
that a waiter will prop in an ice bucket
and bear to your table;
the bottle’s molten glass has hardened
and the water that will turn to ice
is at this moment flowing into the reservoir
from where it will enter
the appropriate cylinders and ducts.
The man who will sit at the next table
has already turned a corner
that will lead to another corner
that eventually will lead to the restaurant’s door;
he may already dream about you
though the two of you have never met
except, perhaps, a chance passing
on a metro station or noonday street.
If not already composed, the songs
that will be played at the piano bar
have imprinted their potential notes
just below the threshold.
The frontal systems that will determine
that day’s weather
already loop through the atmosphere—
whether bearing a Bermuda high,
or winds so fierce
they will uproot the grain’s seedlings,
rain so torrential it will drown
the man who will sit at the next table.
And the stars, the pre-determined
patterns of stars
destined to shine that night one year hence
are easily visible from tonight’s window—
if we chose to forget that stars, too, collapse and die,
that whole galaxies are borne away
by expanding sheets of spacetime
in cycles no one can predict
despite precise calculation
of how their bent rays of color
will enter redshift or blueshift.