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Facts about the Moon: Dorianne Laux’s Stunning Poem about Bearing Our Human Losses When Even the Moon Is Leaving Us

Facts about the Moon: Dorianne Laux’s Stunning Poem about Bearing Our Human Losses When Even the Moon Is Leaving Us

“Hearing the rising tide,” Rachel Carson wrote in her poetic meditation on the ocean and the meaning of life, “there are echoes of past and future: of the flow of time, obliterating yet containing all that has gone before… of the stream of life, flowing as inexorably as any ocean current, from past to unknown future.” There is indeed in the physics of the tides — that gravitational dialogue between our planet and its only satellite — something of the existential, something reminding us how transient all things are, how fluid the future, how slippery our grasp of anything we hold on to, how relational every loss.

The tides bridge the earthly and the cosmic, science and symbol: They cause drag that slows down our planet’s spin rate; because gravity binds the two, as the Earth loses angular momentum, the Moon overcompensates in response; as it speeds up, it begins slipping out of our gravitational grip, slowly moving away from us. The prolific English astronomer Edmund Halley first began suspecting this haunting fact in the early 18th century after analyzing ancient eclipse records. It took another quarter millennium and a giant leap into the cosmos for his theory to be tested against reality in a living poem of geometry and light: When Apollo astronauts placed mirrors on the surface of the Moon and laser beams were aimed at them from Earth, it was revealed that the Moon is indeed drifting away from us, at the precise rate of 3.8 centimeters per year. The Moon, born of the body of the Earth billions of years ago, is drifting away at more than half the rate at which a child grows.

If even the Moon is leaving us — “that best fact, the Moon,” in Margaret Fuller’s exultant words — what is there to hold on to? How are we to bear our ordinary human losses, the worst facts of our lives?

Those questions, immense and intimate, come alive in the stunning title poem of Dorianne Laux’s’ collection Facts About the Moon (public library), stunningly performed by Debbie Millman at the seventh annual Universe in Verse on the eve of the 2024 total solar eclipse.

by Dorianne Laux

The moon is backing away from us
an inch and a half each year. That means
if you’re like me and were born
around fifty years ago the moon
was a full six feet closer to the earth.
What’s a person supposed to do?
I feel the gray cloud of consternation
travel across my face. I begin thinking
about the moon-lit past, how if you go back
far enough you can imagine the breathtaking
hugeness of the moon, prehistoric
solar eclipses when the moon covered the sun
so completely there was no corona, only
a darkness we had no word for.
And future eclipses will look like this: the moon
a small black pupil in the eye of the sun.
But these are bald facts.
What bothers me most is that someday
the moon will spiral right out of orbit
and all land-based life will die.
The moon keeps the oceans from swallowing
the shores, keeps the electromagnetic fields
in check at the polar ends of the earth.
And please don’t tell me
what I already know, that it won’t happen
for a long time. I don’t care. I’m afraid
of what will happen to the moon.
Forget us. We don’t deserve the moon.
Maybe we once did but not now
after all we’ve done. These nights
I harbor a secret pity for the moon, rolling
around alone in space without
her milky planet, her only child, a mother
who’s lost a child, a bad child,
a greedy child or maybe a grown boy
who’s murdered and raped, a mother
can’t help it, she loves that boy
anyway, and in spite of herself
she misses him, and if you sit beside her
on the padded hospital bench
outside the door to his room you can’t not
take her hand, listen to her while she
weeps, telling you how sweet he was,
how blue his eyes, and you know she’s only
romanticizing, that she’s conveniently
forgotten the bruises and booze,
the stolen car, the day he ripped
the phones from the walls, and you want
to slap her back to sanity, remind her
of the truth: he was a leech, a fuckup,
a little shit, and you almost do
until she lifts her pale puffy face, her eyes
two craters and then you can’t help it
either, you know love when you see it,
you can feel its lunar strength, its brutal pull.

Complement with a poetic meditation on moonlight and the magic of the unnecessary, Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s beguiling woodcut moonscapes, the story of the first surviving photograph of the Moon, and Patti Smith’s haunting reading of Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” then revisit Dorianne Laux’s love letter to trees.

Published April 19, 2024




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