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[A Composition of Matter]

A poem which takes the long view, moving as it does from the Devonian & Jurassic period through Sumeria to Portland OR in 02023 and then beyond to the next iterations of consciousness.


In youth, I read of sex, and now it’s death —
not out of gloom but for a need to know
the best response to what sidles up in stealth,
and to train myself in the art of letting go.
Best is if the writer sounds like me, wry
and frank about the loss, not Hallmark card,
but impious. But part of me knows that, try
as I might, there is no practicing. The hard
truth is that diminishment may not creep at all,
but roar down as a tornado does, ripping
off the roof and revealing the whole as fragile.
Perhaps nothing at all is gained by this reading
apart from a solidarity in trepidation,
making sense of life a shared vocation.


Making sense of life’s a shared vocation
that even the trees teach me as they fall, the rot
not always obvious. Cautious, I station
myself back from heavy limbs at lights,
having awakened to my hundred year old willow
snapped quietly in half at night. Others,
succumb to drought or ice. An arborist told
me they also have a set span of years,
which I remind myself after abstaining once
too often. Even the disciplined die, and the Falstaffian
may outlive us yet. Lodgepole cones,
serotinous, need a raging fire to open.
Best just to revel in the day, and by revel
I mean catch the sun and call it ample.


It’s hard to catch the sun and call it ample
though ferns have done so for eons, unfurling
and entrusting spores to wind, to mere dimples
in the soil. Such modesty, with the days hurtling
by. Silt-pressed, some’ve been preserved alongside
their bolder cousins—a triceratops or tyrannosaur,
caught mid-roar. Why this need to stride
above an astonished crowd, wired skull larger
than a car? Birdlike, I sing: I want to matter,
matter, matter. What of all the living things
that never fossilized, that rotted in the same river?
We’re surrounded by the valor of unseen beings.
That we came to be at all is astonishing, a triumph
of coincidences so absurd as to make us laugh.


Consider the coincidence and laugh, biology outwitting
history—a Jewish daughter born to parents
who escaped the century’s brutal rendering —
an accidental breeching of an egg’s defense.
My angry grandfather told me I was almost aborted —
so there’s that as well, the erasure of an inconvenience.
Nor did I drown in the bath, or toddle into the street,
or remain a spinster, or infertile, giving birth not once
but thrice! You’d think such audacity would hold
pride of place on the mantel, like a trophy, remarked
on by guests. Once we spent an afternoon embroiled
in finding my daughter “a treasure button” in the park —
Presented it, she whined: Not red! White!
transforming herself in an instant from darling to brat.


The transformation from darling to brat is an old story.
At first, we liberated the lesser gods from laboring
in mud, but then we proliferated and became noisy.
What else but inundation could stop our clamoring?
It didn’t work. With each decade, we bellow
more loudly in the chute, as if hoping
by mere volume to avert the killing blow,
our masterworks a kind of glorified moping —
If we can’t live forever, maybe something
of us can, if only synapses, uploaded,
Utnapishtim’s immortality in the pulsing
bytes, our flesh and blood outmoded.
How could this help when even a long Sunday
leaves me desperate for the relief of Monday?


The empty hours an ache, I long for Monday.
I’d cling to even the dullards in my schoolroom
like one rescued from a raft after months at sea.
The vastness is too vast, and me a crumb.
Clearly, then, leisure is not the eternity
I seek—rather for some essential me-ness
to linger, for future people to praise my
having been the way I do when I listen
to Bach fugues or read of Melville’s Ahab.
Some make wealth their shield against the void,
vaulting themselves within it like calcareous crabs.
It helps the living but does nothing for a dead
poet longing to outlive my final breath
through what I wrote — first of sex, then death.

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The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking. Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.

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