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.


“Olbers’s Paradox”

after PK Page, Leonard Cohen, John Keats, Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin

“Here is the problem with eternity!
Guerrilla ranks of starlight taunt us
a lonely ragged column on a forced march
our umbilical slashed.
We clink and tumble onward, bones
shaken from a burlap sack. We weep
that this will never end. We weep that it will.”
The doctor takes my pulse in shirtsleeves,
his eyes bruised like there was a vigil to keep.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep,
I have no quarrel with eternity.
But he receives me in his attic,
fingers the melon readiness of my gut,
and says, friend, there is something wrong.
Like a batty priest through a parthenon,
he patrols his stacks of paper, tweaks wheels
on a telescope. On a bank of the Weser,
on a bench, lunch in lap, I vomit blood.
The reddest waterclock peals.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals
but my stomach has declared its sovereignty.
The Weser courses on unconcerned
for the whole day, for its last ten long miles.
Peeking at my blood-flecked shoes,
I think, did it not run into the sea,
it wouldn’t run at all, just sit, an icy shelf.
In the mornings, I leap from my bed
a Lazarite. Life pinches like new boots,
as if I come at night—I come, an elf—
my body cleans and repairs itself.
The doctor takes my pulse in shirtsleeves.
He is an old doe, shuffling through white trees.
He salaams at an eyeglass and is a moth
drinking nighttime slow through his proboscis.
My body, he says, is a broken planet.
I grin oceanic. I heave and swell
ambergris as the fields of the North Sea.
“Once things stop happening…once all verbs become
be. Then are we indissoluble
and all my work goes well.”

A glosa unapologetically,
“Olbers’s Paradox” takes as its cabeza
a quatrain already borrowed for the purpose
by P.K. Page from Leonard Cohen’s
“I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries”:

During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals,
my body cleans and repairs itself,
and all my work goes well.

As the winner of Echolocation Magazine’s 2012 Poetry Contest, this poem was published as a broadsheet by Echolocation Magazine and printed by Massey College’s Brian Maloney. It is available for purchase here, with all proceeds going to Echolocation Magazine.