The Antikythera Mechanism
Too subtle to have been unique, a circular system
of fine-toothed gears in cedar, its wheeled delicate
copper-alloy movement, cranked by a handle, clicks and whirrs
so its incised texts rotate. This year: the colour is black, or
the colour is fire-red. Almost overlooked, dredged
through starless ages by a sponge-diver crippled by the bends,
the sea-bitten glyphs, friable as icing, say that knowledge is dust
almost, but this is the moon in a groove;
no vagabond, but modest and observable in all her pale steps
and lunations. Watching her narrow smile snagged
on the needle tip of the cypress, or floating brokenly
on a sea which admitted darkness but was never blue
must have suggested to him this gleaming planetary gearing,
since to cast bronze is to pray, and to beat metal is to give praise.
There was time in the town-square clepsydra but it trickled away,
he could never enter it again. These were the loved hours:
the poem of the moment, of pouring ripeness, as when the breeze
drove the flame of its exact pattern across the corn.
Wallingford’s astrolabe, Su Song’s Cosmic Engine,
all the beauty of escapements—mercury, grasshopper or deadlock—
even the ticking decay in nine billion caesium cycles
interrogate, like this drowned analect of a mechanical age,
ever more precisely the same silence. Shall I find it?
Shall I become rich? Shall I live an object of envy?
Shall I die in my bed? But nothing, since the nice-fingered craftsmen
of Corinth set the gear-trains to a careful stargazer’s design,
has come close to an answer. Consult the oracle bones,
cast the yarrow stalks, inhale the fine particles of your trade
until they glitter in lung and bone. It is the distant ignition of stars:
you, this clock, this dust. The yes-no, no-yes of the pendulum.
What is it to talk about silence?
When I look up from my table
it will still be there
where it fell in the night,
hurrying to congregate
in the cone cast by the street lamp,
and in the darkness, the rest,
unseen but legion.
How bruise-blue the shadows
on the garden
and the frozen cobwebs
snapped beneath their weight.
In the park we blundered
across it, the quiet,
in spite of its exclamatory outline
on dark trees,
down great hushed halls of white
and the white lake picked out in kanji
by the moorhen’s feet.
Are there words for what I felt
in the faceted garden?
Motes, corpuscles, animalcules.
And it is a relief to feel it touch me
with its meaning,
its vast multitudinous silence,
again and again.
Each day brings less to believe.
Once, men with ichor in their veins,
knowing their souls were made
of polished atoms
and greatly fearing emptiness,
filled the spaces on their vases
with swastika and lotus.
A hare inhabited the moon:
three seas made its head and ears;
its tail a sea of clouds.
Where serpents squirmed inside
the world’s cut belly,
Metztli, lowliest god of worms,
failed to become the sun
and became instead the moon,
his pallor shadowed by a hare.
Coatlicue was his violent sister,
digging the graves of her children
with ragged fingernails,
wearing for her necklace
their hearts and hands and skulls.
The shrieking god of night and owls
of obloquy and cold stone,
who filled the known universe
with his seething body,
his crowded name.
Each day brings less, now,
to believe. Knowledge means
not that it is true, but that it works:
the elimination of air in a jar
makes smoke trickle downwards,
boils cool water,
silences the tongues of bells.
It takes the strength of sixteen horses
to part a pair of bronze hemispheres
with nothing between them,
thus proving that nothing exists.