A few thoughts on “Olbers’s Paradox”

Thank you to everyone who sent congratulations regarding my recent Descant prize win. A few of you generously mentioned that you ‘enjoyed’ my interview on the Descant blog. I’m convinced that (through no fault of the interviewer) I sound like an ingénue, so to compensate I’ve posted here a few thoughts on “Olbers’s Paradox,” my only other anything-winning poem. They were originally hosted on the Echolocation blog but didn’t survive a recent content cull. Evidently, I refuse to take that as a hint.

Page’s glosa “Inebriate” (which you can listen to her read here) pissed me off. From there, “Olbers’s Paradox” very quickly began to write itself. Many of its images respond directly to Page’s and are traceable through the rhyme scheme, which I annoyingly had to preserve in order to write a glosa from the same cabeza. And I wanted the same cabeza because I thought I could use the same source material to produce something more interesting. That admitted, I haven’t done much to advance the glosa form. Maybe I’ve brought in dramatic monologue, or dramatic lyric, but that’s a bit like adding whisky to bitters: what you get is still (an) old fashioned. Advancing the form wasn’t my interest. If I had to name one difference, it’s that Page wanted glosas to be celebratory and I want them to be quietly or loudly belligerent. Characters are pretty good at quiet belligerence; poets can be good at being loud.

With “Stars / beyond stars unfold for me and shine,” Page practically handed me the paradox that the historical Heinrich Olbers posed: the universe can’t be both infinite and eternal (eternally static, that is) because if it were the night sky would be completely chocked with starlight. Being high on Anxiety of Influence at the time of composition, I evidently connected the potential frying of the Earth’s surface by stellar radiation with the woe of the contemporary writer. But the Earth doesn’t fry, they say, because space is expanding and the stars are moving away from us. That’s a simplification. Here’s another: time expands outward, pushing the past and its precedents away from us. The gradual departure of their lights is what allows and requires that we keep writing.

I traced Page back to Cohen, both back to Keats, and he too back to Elgin, incidentally Olbers’s contemporary but more importantly the one who ‘rescued’ the Parthenon Marbles from those crazy, statue-burning Greeks. Each of the four handled influence in a different way—lauder, renouncer, neurotic, and thief—but I have more fondness for Olbers’s patient, the character whose voice cohered quite suddenly out of this mess. The patient is my antidote to Page’s transcendently happy, ironically healthy, spring water-swilling septuagenarian. There’s something admirable, I think, in a younger person terminally ill but thermodynamically happy. You heard me, Keats.

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