Excerpt from “Genesis”

From Genesis

(an epic poem of 10,000 lines about the terraforming of Mars. This scene describes a spaceship made of a living tree)

Out over Saturn; white with a smooth grain;
Impossible to tell how far away;
A child’s top, but double-ended; a spool,
A bobbin, naked of thread, slowly spinning;
A form as elegant as is the field
Electromagnetism weaves itself,
But pinched-waisted-an hourglass or a viol;
And our first thought was right-it’s made of wood,
Beech heartwood by the look of it, and huge-
Those shadows that the pointlike sun casts through
Its slender waist are vast, those pores and eyes
With lights behind them, spacious apertures
Like Gaudi’s Catalonian grotesque,
Broad windows lipped with driftwood wings of bone,
Or flanged for their heavy crystal lenses.
The shadows are lit pink by Saturn’s rings.
At one end, at the center of the disc,
There is a dimple like a graphic function;
And out of it a beam of pure white light
(Tainted and rendered visible, as if a dust
Had wandered through a sunbeam, by a trace
Of plasma fluorescing as it cools)
Shoots ruler-sharp a thousand miles behind.
About the other end-is this a vessel,
And is this the prow?-there’s a vaguer aura,
Some puddling of the light of distant stars,
That must bespeak the presence of a power
That bends the laminate of time with space.
This ship’s a living tree turned inside out.
Chance’s and Beatrice’s engineers
Of genes and cellular development
Shaped her in secret from mutated mast
Gleaned from a windy coppice by the Glyme,
And fed her sunlight, water and sweet air
As she obeyed the new geometry
Spelled out for her in double helices.
Given enough organic chemicals the tree
Might grow to be a planetoid, a world;
Its barrelvault of heartwood, ten feet thick,
Protecting an environment of green
And leafy springtime branchiness within.
Let us explore the great aft lobe together:
Its inner rim is deep with rich black soil
In which the rootweb flourishes upon
The wastes of this self-fed economy;
A hadean acreage where mushrooms grow,
And the moist air is ripe with fertile spores.
A glassite axle towers from stem to stem
Containing the machineries of hell
(Where Blake might lead a skeptic angel if
He would impose his vision on that spirit),
Whose function is to suck in through the intake
The planetary gas and comet-dusts
With an electric funnel twelve miles wide,
And, like a ramjet, burn this vaporous fuel
And turn its nuclear substance into light;
Light whose reaction mass indeed is small
But whose velocity, and thus momentum,
Could scarcely be improved on by an angel.
The incandescent torch the vessel wields
Is wing and sword at once, a drive or weapon;
And harnessed to an asteroid or comet
Becomes a miner’s pick or welder’s arc.
The forrard lobe is full of windowlight;
Part from the radiance of ancient Sol,
Part from the fusion furnaces behind
The glasswall of the axle at the core.
Conservatory of eternal dawn,
It’s laced with stories out of beechen green
Where human dwellers, like their ancestors,
Have made their lairs in clusters or alone
Among the silvery sensitive and bescarred boles
Of the bright emerald monoforest.
The tree is grafted with a second life:
Orchards of apples, figs, and mangotrees,
A fruit-lit orangery like a street
Of Christmas lanterns, garlanded with flowers;
The air’s bright with the screech of colored birds.
A little prairie by a concave lake
Pastures a herd of somnolescent cows;
A net of streambeds carries runoff when
The huge vessel changes its momentum,
And irrigates these arched slopes of eden.
Above, the dweller sees a detailed map
Of what lies on the far side of his world,
A map which is also reality,
Pierced by the mullions of the distant light.
The ship is named Kalevala, and smells
Of lemon trees and showers and cooking-smoke;
And like the clippers of the southern seas
Creaks when the press of speed is on her, so
A music haunts its pinched harmonic sphere,
A sweet groan like the sound of sea or wind.

And as we watch, the fiery torch goes out.
The ship’s commander, Ximene de Vivar,
Has given orders to the main computer
To put the vessel in a grazing orbit
About the equatorial belt of Saturn; now
The braking burn is over, and the ship
Coasts to its rendezvous within the ring.

(The following passage from the same poem is a flying-lesson. If Mars were given a breathable atmosphere, human beings on the planet would be able to fly under their own power)

Wolf stands upon a windy hill, his goggles
Pushed up on his head, his grey eyes distant,
A sky-dauphin, like Saint-Exupery:
Let’s listen to him lecture to his students.
“Your muscles were evolved to bear your body
Against the leaden gravity of Earth.
By now the exercises you have done
Have given you that strength again. On Earth
You could all jump a meter in the air.
Here some of you can leap to twice your height.
Now watch Irene. She weighs forty pounds.
See: she can long-jump over thirteen meters
And her hang-time’s what? Two point eight? Thank you.
That’s enough time, you’ll see, to take two strokes,
And get a glide you find you can sustain.
You can all press an easy eighty pounds,
Enough to beat the drop rate and the drag.
Then you can get your feet into the stirrups
And make your flying height. A hundred meters
Keeps you out of trouble, and you still
Have depth perception while you feel you need it.
Landing is tough, I know. For those of you
Who really can’t, we’ve got the brained wings
Which do it for you, ‘drop the flaps,’ we say.
That means extend and cup the primaries,
Open the secondaries, and stall out
Just as you hit the ground. If you’re afraid,
We’ll start you on the old folk’s muscled wings,
And we can even strap a gasbag on,
Though that’s against the spirit of the game.”

If you have ears to hear. The metaphor,
This feathered glory I ask you to put on,
Is not intangible, light though it is.
Consider how recursive is its order:
First, the full wing itself, white as an angel;
Then the wing’s wings, which are its fletch of feathers,
Each with a tuft of warm and gentle down;
But then the feathers too are feathered with
The crispy barbs that clothe the inpithed quill
To form the rigid vane; and these have barbules,
Which again bear hooklets, set to catch
Any chance split and heal it without seam.
(The Sibyl likened wings to our felt time:
She said that underneath the surface structure
We knew the time of animals and plants,
The time of stones and atoms, and of fire.
So many pens are woven to a pinion,
The prince’s pennon bears his sister’s swan.
Oh fly with it, fly with it, fly with it!)

Wind sifting by, divided by your blade;
Wingtips trailing a curl of turbulence;
Your fingers rule the carpus, metacarpus;
Your masked face feels a burr of parching speed;
A long glide down the aeroclinal wedge
Into the sudden buoyancy and fetor
That rises from the sweetness of a meadow;
The swift-approaching wavetop of a ridge;
The gasp and fall away into the chasm
That succeeds, the flicking turn along
The cliffwall till the updraft catches you;
The spiral up into the towering sky
As fields and trees diminish like a lens;
The silence as you leave the world of bells,
Cries, stamp and snort of animals, the rush
And burble of the streams, the sigh of trees;
The sunny blisses of the middle air,
The dizziness of summer afternoons,
The suck and dumbness of the ear’s drawn drum,
The choice of detail from a hemisphere
Of world, all given sharply to the view
Like a crisp plateful of delicious viands,
Like a soft carpet stitched with tiny needles;
The many-colored coat of mortal dwelling.
How do we get down? We should have a kite-string,
We should have a fishing-line, a reel,
A spool to reel us in, a puppeteer,
A yoke, an apron-string, and we have none!
Ah joy and terror, now we truly know
The meaning and the function of a roof:
It is a lid to keep the sweetness in!

Thus lesson number one, the school of joy.
Without it nothing that was made was made.