Cosmic Pastoral: Diane Ackerman’s Poems for the Planets, Which Carl Sagan Sent Timothy Leary in Prison
By Maria Popova
On February 19, 1974, shortly before visiting Timothy Leary in prison, Carl Sagan sent the psychedelic pioneer a letter discussing evolution, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the details of the upcoming visit. The postscript read:
P.S. The enclosed poem, ‘The Other Night’ by Dianne Ackermann [sic] of Cornell, is something I think we both resonate to. It’s unfinished so it shouldn’t yet be quoted publically.
But the poem was eventually finished and, along with fourteen others, included in the 1976 poetry anthology The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (public library) by Diane Ackerman — a whimsical and wonderful ode to the universe, celebrating its phenomena and featuring a poem for each planet in the Solar System, as well as one specifically dedicated to Carl Sagan.
Low-keyed and perpetual,
a whirling sylph
whose white robe stripes
around her; taffeta
wimpled like a nun’s headcloth;
a buxom floozy with a pink boa;
mummy, whose black
sediment desiccates within; wasp-star
to Mayan Galileos;
wrapped in post-operative gauze;
Cleopatra in high August–
her flesh curling
in a heat mirage
tacky white pulp
through the belly of a larva;
the perfect courtesan:
and pleated with riddles,
Venus quietly mutates
in her ivory tower.
Deep within that
temperatures are hot enough
to boil lead,
90 times more unyielding
And though layered cloud-decks
and haze strata
seem to breathe
like a giant bellows,
heaving and sighing
every 4 days,
the Venerean cocoon
is no cheery chrysalis
brewing a damselfly
or coaxing life
into a reticent grub,
but a sniffling atmosphere
40 miles thick
of sulphuric, hydrochloric,
and hydrofluoric acids
like a global terrarium,
cutthroat, tart, and self-absorbed.
No sphagnum moss
or polypody fern here,
where blistering vapors
and rosy bile
hint at the arson
with which the Universe began.
The quickest route
from Candor to Chaos
Shit River), through
da Vinci and Galileo
many moons from Tranquility.
But, Romantics, take heart:
you can breakfast
in Syria, lunch in Sinai,
track the Nile
to its source (Nilokeras)
before dinner, and there,
making ablutions to Osiris,
win a boon to Eden,
where all four rivers
of Paradise converge,
then spend the night
in Pandora, or with Ulysses,
Proteus, or even Noah,
in the Land of Gold (Chryse)
or by the Leek-green Sea.
The bread mold and I
have much in common.
We’re both alive.
The wardrobe of our cells
is identical. We speak
the same genetic code.
The death of a star
gave each of us life.
a brandspanking new
biology. Just as
when a window
abruptly flies open
the room grows airy
and floods with light,
so awakening to
an alien life form
how we think of ourselves
and our lives.
In my bony wrist alone,
the DNA could spin a yarn
filling thousands and thousands
of library volumes.
But one day we’ll browse
in the stacks of other galaxies.
Given the sweet generosity of time
that permits the bluegreen algae
and the polar bear,
the cosmic flannel
must be puckered with life.
My bad habits charm me now
with reckless appeal;
we may be the habit of the universe.
From “The Other Night (Comet Kohoutek)”:
Last night, while
cabbage stuffed with
brown sugar, meat and
raisins was baking in the
oven, and my potted holly,
dying leafmeal from red-spider,
basked in its antidote malathion,
I stepped outside to watch Kohoutek
passing its dromedary core through the
eye of a galaxy. But only found a white
blur cat-napping under Venus: gauzy, dis-
solute, and bobtailed as a Manx.
Pent-up in that endless coliseum of stars,
the moon was fuller than any Protestant
had a right to be. And I said: Moon,
if you’ve got any pull up there, bring me
a sun-grazing comet, its long hair swept
back by the solar wind, in its mouth a dollop
of primordial sputum. A dozing iceberg,
in whose coma ur-elements collide. Bring me
a mojo that’s both relict and reliquary.
Give me a thrill from that petrified seed.
Mars was a stoplight in the north sky,
the only real meat on the night’s black
bones. And I said: Mars, why be parsimonious?
You’ve got a million tricks stashed
in your orbital backhills: chicory suns
bobbing in viridian lagoons; quasars dwindling
near the speed of light; pinwheel, dumbbell,
and impacted galaxies; epileptic nuclei
a mile long; vampiric moons; dicotyledon suns;
whorling dustbowls of umbilical snow; milky ways
that, on the slant, look like freshly fed pythons.
From “Diffraction (for Carl Sagan)”:
When Carl tells me it’s Rayleigh scattering
that makes blue light, canting off molecular
grit, go slowgait through the airy jell, subdued,
and outlying mountains look swarthy, or wheat
blaze tawny-rose in the 8:00 sun, how I envy
his light touch on Earth’s magnetic bridle.
Knee-deep in the cosmic overwhelm, I’m stricken
by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain
everythingness of everything, in cahoots
with the everythingness of everything else.
Echoing Richard Feynman’s views on science and mystery, Ackerman writes of her poetry:
I’ve always been baffled by people who write about nature only in terms of, say, junipers and cornfields, eschewing all things so-called ‘scientific,’ as if science were, per se, the spoil-sport of feeling. So wonderless a view of nature really doesn’t appeal to me; I don’t see the Universe divided up that way, into ‘The Junipers’ on the one hand and ‘The Amino Acids’ on the other.
Published February 19, 2013