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Cosmic Pastoral: Diane Ackerman’s Poems for the Planets, Which Carl Sagan Sent Timothy Leary in Prison

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.

Phases of Venus and Saturn by Maria Clara Eimmart, early 1700s. (Available as a print.)

From “Venus”:

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;
                        an outpatient
wrapped in post-operative gauze;
                  Cleopatra in high August–
      her flesh curling
                        in a heat mirage
                  from Alexandria;
            tacky white pulp
      through the belly of a larva;
            the perfect courtesan:
obliging, thick-skinned,
                        and pleated with riddles,

Venus quietly mutates
            in her ivory tower.

            Deep within that
                        libidinous albedo
temperatures are hot enough
            to boil lead,
      90 times more unyielding
                        than Earth’s.
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
all sweating
            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.

One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

From “Mars”:

The quickest route
from Candor to Chaos
follows Coprates
(the much-travelled
Shit River), through
da Vinci and Galileo
bypassing Bliss,
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.

From “Pluto”:

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.
But imagine
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
will transfigure
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.

The great comet of 1881, observed on June 26, 1:30 A.M.
The great comet of 1881 by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

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.

Complement with the first poem published in a scientific journal, which actually turned out not to be the first.

Published February 19, 2013




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