Flight and Interpretation:
Reconstructing a Science Fiction Poem
In this essay I propose to do something rather peculiar: that is, to take a section of “my” poem Genesis and, as a literary critic, perform on it a close literary analysis. The philosophical subject of Genesis is time, and the theory of time it explores is one in which time is constituted of and by the process of reflexive iteration in both the sentient and the pre-sentient world. Thus to perform an exegesis of one’s “own” poem is itself to extend the domain of time by further reflexion.
But this formulation already will not work. For a poem, if it is any good, is always already a better reading of its critic and of its own critical exegesis than they are of it. And, as the quotation marks suggest, the poem is not “my” poem. The experience of writing the poem was of someone (rather fumbling with the transmission and frustrated with the result) dictating the poem to me: someone who is, or rather will be, a poet in one of the many possible futures that fan out from the present.
The Anthropic Principle of the physicist John Archibald Wheeler implies a sort of weak backward causality, in which the initial conditions of the universe are, because of the observer effect of quantum mechanics, partly determined by the kind of observers, if any, that they will end up producing. But since every moment is the initial conditions for all of its futures, all those futures are dimly present, clamoring for existence, or perhaps for quietus, as angels standing behind our shoulders when we make decisions, especially artistic ones. One of those angels was my poet, who, though he was very reticent about who he was, I have imagined as living in New York during the twenty-second century, under the gentle censorship of the Ecotheist authorities, composing his poem in secret about the great historical events of the twenty-first century, about a hundred years before his own birth.
His poem Genesis is an epic poem in unrhymed iambic pentameters, with occasional sections in rhyme. It is exactly 10,000 lines long, and is divided into five Acts, each of which contains five Scenes, of exactly four hundred lines each. This severely constraining form, with enormous variations of tone and texture and style within it, is itself part of the meaning of the poem: closure, and the further appetite for closure that is triggered by closure, is the dynamic driving force of time, that which makes new beginnings possible by drawing a line under, and summing up, what has come before. Closure is to poetry what death is to a human being: the gift of being to all successors, the definition of the specific life and meaning of an individual, the basis of all sharing. Open forms seek immortality and omnipotence and are thus essentially adolescent in meaning.
The action of the poem covers the major historical events of the period from about 2015 to about 2070. A group of scientists and technologists, led by Chancellor (“Chance”) Van Riebeck, is charged by the United Nations with the scientific survey of the planet Mars. Using theories derived from the Gaia Hypothesis, they clandestinely introduce hardy genetically tailored bacteria into the Martian environment with the intention of transforming the planet into one habitable by human beings. The Earth has at this time fallen under the theocratic rule of the Ecotheist Movement, which divides human beings off from the rest of nature and regards all human interference with nature as an evil. Chance and his followers are captured and put on trial, and war breaks out between the Martian colonists and the home planet. Though Chance and others lose their lives, the colonists are able to gain their independence by threatening to drop a moonlet on Earth. After a bitter renewed struggle led by the hero Tripitaka the colonists obtain a complete inventory of Earthly lifeforms, sometimes called the Ark, or elsewhere the Lima Codex. With the help of this inventory, and led by Beatrice Van Riebeck, they complete the terraforming of the planet. A religious leader, the Sibyl, is born to the colonists; her teaching reconciles the ancient mystical wisdom of the Earth with the new science and cultural experience of Mars.
The scientific and technological material of the poem constitute not only a large part of its content but also a gigantic metaphor of its very structure and form. In other words, the unwritten poem is the barren planet, and the composition of the poem is its cultivation by living organisms. But the word “metaphor” fails to capture the dimensions of the trope which is the poem. For the gardening of Mars by the code (or “codex”) of life is act, theme, myth, argument and form at once. The forking tree of evolutionary descent is the forking tree of grammatical and logical construction, the forking tree of plot and story, the forking tree of esthetic form, the forking tree of family descent, and the forking tree of human moral decision; and those trees are in turn connected as branches to the stem of the great tree of the universe itself.
Such self-similar forms are now known as fractal geometries: the plot of Genesis is itself fractal, with many small branchlets of event connecting hierarchically and heterarchically with larger actions which are in turn tributary to the one epic action of the whole poem, the founding of a new world. The parable of the swan’s wing in V. ii., which I shall quote below, is itself a branch or wing of this structure, as well as being a miniature version of it.
The tragic element of the poem is also related to this deep trope. For if one path is chosen, then others must be rejected–or better, “set aside;” the German word aufheben might express it, with its implication of the cancellation of a debt. The future is a sort of wave-function, a probability curve expressing the relative likelihood of many possible events. The decisions that constitute the present and the very continuance of time must collapse that wave function and prune off the branches not chosen. This is a violent act, as all creation is violent. Mars and Earth constitute two historical choice-pathways in the poem. Both have much to recommend them, but the poet must choose to prefer one, and the conflict between them is tragic. This procrustean choice is symbolized and expressed by the very rigid technical parameters of the poem, the strict iambic pentameter line relieved only by a proportion of feminine endings (many of them “paid for” by succeeding headless lines, in a kind of rubato ), and the equal and round numbers of the lines in each section. These rigidities compel the action again and again to come to a point, a focus, to collapse the wave function of possibility, to choose one path of plot.
In a larger sense still the narrator is an alternate branch of the future of the redactor of the poem, that is, myself, and the world of the poem an alternate branch to “this” one. Possibly the future the poem describes will not come about precisely because the poem was passed to me and I chose to publish it. The relationship between the actual branch and its ghostly alternates constitutes the richness and meaning of time, just as the relationship between the metrical structure of the poetic line and the actual rhythm of its spoken presence constitutes its musical richness. In the broadest sense we may thus say that the content of existence is essence, that being is the sacrifice of alternatives, that freedom is the rejection of choices. The Anthropic Principle postulates that full consciousness of the origins of the universe may ontologically privilege those origins over any others, and that thus the choice of moral being, conscious knowledge, and above all of beautiful unified complexity, is the logos that creates the world. In this sense the world is a kind of drama, brought into being by its own choices; and this is perhaps one reason why the poet named the divisions of his poem by the theatrical terms he did.
As I have suggested, the poem may be designed as a warning to past ages of the consequences of their fear of the future; on the other hand the action of the poem may be a kind of performative invocation designed to bring about the new choices it describes. The work of terraforming is the work of making air, an atmosphere, the Atman or spirit, the breath in which the poem may be spoken, the first breath of the newborn. The poem is the Lima Codex, or Ark of the Covenant, the book of information for the construction of a new world; and the struggle of its composition, both by its its original future narrator and by its present-day scribe, against its enemies, historical and technical, is the fundamental drama of the work.
The poem is not a mere “fantasy,” in the sense of an arbitrary fiction. The technologies it describes, especially the development of artificial photosynthetic bacteria using iterative evolutionary neural-network programs, are being studied by NASA, where the poem is part of the reading curriculum for its long-range planning groups. Other aspects of the poem’s science, such as the environmental transformation of Mars that it describes, have been used by the ecological restoration community as a limiting-case thought experiment. Other elements still have become issues in speculative theology and in environmental ethics. Thus the poem has demonstrated a different role for literature from that accepted by the Western avant-garde for the last two hundred years or so. And this new role is itself part of the meaning of the poem, as a meditation upon the nature of time: for though a mimesis of future events, it takes an active “poietic” role in their actualization. Thus we cannot know time without changing it, and this is the very nature of time. As with Oedipus Rex, if we play with predictions we end up altering our own initial conditions, meeting our father at the place where three ways meet–that is, at the crotch of time whence we issued from our mother.
The passage I wish to analyse is from Act V, Scene ii (lines 12-226). At this point in the poem Mars has been provided with an Earthly atmosphere by its gardener-midwives Beatrice, Ganesh, and Charlie. The early life and teachings of the divine lady Hermione Mars, the Sybil, have already been broached; but the poet fears that the reader will be wearied by her mysterious and gnomic sayings, and by way of almost comic relief turns to a description of the populating of Mars with earthly animals. “The Ark” refers to two things in the poem. The first is the giant spaceship Kalevala, whose hull is a living beech tree, turned inside out and genetically mutated to grow to a vast size in the weightlessness of space. It was employed to carry selections of living genes and tissues from the Earth to Mars, where they can be cloned into animals and plants. But Kalevala, the literal ark, has been destroyed in battle by the ecotheists. The second, metaphorical, “ark” is the set of eight information discs upon which the same genetic information was inscribed in binary code; this ark is successfully smuggled from Earth to Mars by the twins Wolf and Irene.
Thus one of the fundamental metaphors of the poem–but it is more than a metaphor, rather a self-reflexive synecdoche, or perhaps a sort of technical drawing or blueprint–is of the DNA molecule as poetry, or poetry as the further essentialized, and abstracted, and portable form of DNA–on discs rather than carried in the belly of a wooden ark. We could say that the wooden ark is commutated into the digital ark. (The commander of the Kalevala, incidentally, is Tripitaka, whose name is the same as the priest-hero who, in Wu Ch’eng-en’s novel Monkey, carried the sacred scriptures of Buddhism over the Himalayas from India to China: another story of the carrying of the ark of the covenant across the desert to the promised land.) Since time, moreover, is conceived of in the poem as inseparable from evolution, as being both the meaning and the sign of evolution, there is the further implication that the evolution of DNA by mutation and selection and the new use of words in poetry are both time-generating activities.
One other element of the passage would be useful to know before reading it. On Mars the gravitation is 3/8 that of the Earth, and in an Earthly atmosphere human beings would be able to fly under their own power. The metaphor of flying, which can be taken to mean the new human capacity to inhabit time in depth by means of knowledge and interpretation, is connected through the device of the genetically-grown wings to the other great metaphor/synecdoche of DNA.
Let us go now to the passage itself, which begins with our exhaustion in the attempt to scale the holy mountain (Pavonis Mons ) where the Sibyl has her cell, and which will turn into a lesson in flying.
But till we are prepared to reascend
The cliffs, let us go to and fro and and see
How Charlie and Ganesh have broached the Ark
And let forth all the curious animals.
Most family-like to us, the vertebrates:
Elephas bearing his head’s gondola,
Bufo the toad, who bloats his moony toot,
The bustly cassowary, with slim toes,
The teleosts, their scaled eyes set in bone, 20
The shad, the arched tunny, and the perch;
The pangolin, with her smart streamlining,
The salamander, who must work each foot
Out of a different idea; the shrew,
As swift and vicious as the village sneak,
The gentle cow, her eyes rimmed with kohl,
The heron, like a purple thundercloud
Seen across marshland in the setting sun;
Pissing against the odorous stump, the dog;
The hummingbird who throws his huge helix 30
About the jacarandas and who leaves
A flash of green buzzing into your eyes;
The valved and wallowing baleen, her flukes
Awash with bitter curds of cream, her breath
Thumping like furnace from the pouched blowhole;
The jackdaw in a mob of clever jackdaws,
As exercised as Guelphs or Ghibellines;
The crosseyed skate, who sidled for too long,
The gorgeous flowing camouflaged jaguar,
The pig with his shrewd eyes, the staring owl, 40
The lemur retinal, the manatee,
And Mus the mouse and Pan the chimpanzee.
But Charlie and Ganesh had more in mind
Than filling out the plenum of a zoo;
They were composing a community,
A new branch of natural history.
Consider the creation of the swan.
Whether we picture it in space or time,
It owes its being to a hierarchy
Of other organisms. We must learn 50
To find the beauty in this web of lives,
This seething texture of dependency.
Inside the lungflesh of the leopard frog
That the swan preys on in certain habitats
There lives a nematode which is in turn
Parasitized by zygomycota.
The frogs prey on the ephemoptera
Which feed as larvae on the fungal growth
Of fecal matter from the waterbirds.
Mites populate the feathers of the swan; 60
Its colon swarms with microsymbiotes.
Follow the swan’s genes back, and there are branches
Where grebes and petrels, storks and pelicans
Fork outward from the stem, then distant kin,
The swifts and passerines; and further back
The archeopteryxes, and their roots
Which also fed the undreaming monotremes,
The platypus, the anteaters, and so
–Turning a moment to climb up the stem–
Marsupials, the mammals, and ourselves. 70
And further down the chordates split again
To tunicates and dim cephalochords;
And now the great branch of the arthropods,
The insects, spiders, and crustacea;
And the mollusca, with their pearly shells
(And such strange creatures as the echiura
Whose tiny male lives as a parasite
Inside the female’s kidney; she is called
The fat innkeeper and is used for bait;
One of Ganesh’s favorite animals, 80
The bat ray, pops her from her hole as you
Might clear a toilet with a rubber plunger);
Then down the stem again, where rotifers
And mesozoans branch away; and then
The radiates and formless parazoa:
The sponges in their blind communities.
And down again, to the stromatolites
Which lived two billion years without change;
And then to mineral colonies and clays.
Sometimes the way down is the way up. 90
If we could take this path a little further
We’d find those silicates and carbonates
To be compacted ash of burnt-out stars;
The nuclei themselves cooked up inside
The crushing fusion of their white-white cores;
Their particles the frozen motes of light
That burst in nightmare from the primal atom.
And we would know that moment as the fall
Of the Uranian Goddess to Her dream.
But if we took that way then we might err, 100
Believing that the arche of the joy
Of all creation as it sings itself
Is found by a retracing of the path
The world took in its long ecstatic fall;
“To thy high requiem become a sod.”
Pass through that point where down is changed to up;
And as the sounding whale breaks for the surface,
And as the vaulter strints behind his pole,
And as the poet must not yet look back
Lest the beloved be reclaimed forever, 110
And as the swan’s wings whoop above the water,
Gold feet spurning the lower element,
Let us turn back toward the holy mountain.
First we must learn to fly. But who will teach us?
Recall the story of the willow-pattern:
A mandarin engaged the poet Chang
To teach his daughter, beautiful Hong Shee.
Though he was young and poor, they fell in love.
The father in a rage locked up his daughter,
But she escaped out of a secret gate 120
Where Chang was waiting, and they fled toward
The little bridge engraved beneath the glaze;
But they were seen, and men with guns pursued;
And Chang was shot and Hong Shee drowned herself.
But the gods changed them to a pair of swallows
And they still dance the lakes and willow-waters.
Wolf and Irene, who learned that planet’s skies,
Will be our flying-teachers so that we
May be as swallows in the air of time.
It was the children first, of course, who took 130
the sky, their natural inheritance.
This large land mammal always yearned to fly,
As if the wrong circuitry had got wired
Into a biped quite unsuited to it:
Large boned and dense, “bad power-weight ratio,”
Ganesh liked to point out; and yet nature
(Being fantastical in her conceits,
Not above cruelty, even, if the joke
Seems worth it; or ios it incompetence,
Which governs, after all, ninety percent 140
Of what goes on anywhere?)–yet nature
Makes us dream of being mighty birds,
Coasting the buttresses of mountain chains,
Lifting away upon a breeze of power,
Escaping monsters, terrors, to the air.
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 150
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. 160
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, 170
Open the secondaries, and stall out
Just as you hit the ground. If you’re afraid,
We’ll start you on the old folks’ 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; 180
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, 190
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 200
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; 210
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, 220
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.
The first thirty lines of this passage are a traditional bestiary, using the anthropomorphic metaphors, epic epithets and cartoonlike stereotypy of the human sensorium, which was until recently the only resource of the poet who wished to describe the world. The beasts stare out at us with their eyes, which is the feature to which the human eye goes to read expression; and there are references to earlier epics, to the creation scene in Paradise Lost, to the Guelphs and Ghibellines of Dante’s Florence, to the etymological play on “whale” in Melville’s Moby Dick; less obviously, to Jaques’ stereotypical “seven ages of Man” speech in As You Like It.
This rich and user-friendly system of perception and description is the default option of human knowledge. But Charlie and Ganesh are not collecting a zoo, but creating a world. Mars is a new way of knowing, knowing-from-the-inside, knowing by creating. The poet of Mars believes that if the human default system of experience is taken for granted, and not re-energized by a deeper understanding that derives from analysing and literally re-creating the perceived, then it generates an increasing belief that things are always better unchanged and that the world is most beautiful when least participated in by human beings: this is the creed of the ecotheists and it is finally a nihilistic one. Human metaphors–the shrewishness of the shrew, the gondola of the elephant, the gentleness of the cow–can be evocative, but unless they are validated by true scientific understanding they are superficial and secondary, and lead to a kind of perceptual conservatism. We must learn to experience the rest of nature as it experiences itself; and our way of doing that is through the alienation of exact scientific language. Phenomenology without science is a cheap and lazy shortcut, a sort of auto-cannibalism which eventually runs out of fuel and futures.
In the next passage a supremely heraldic and emblematic bird, the swan, a favorite with poets and an important symbol throughout this poem, is treated strictly as a subject of biological inquiry. This beautiful and majestic bird is seen in the ecological context, including the stomach-fauna of its prey and the fungal decay of its wastes: and we are invited to find this ecological interdependence the more deeply beautiful, because truer. The swan that we could construct out of DNA bases–the swan as God would know it, as its maker–must be more beautiful than the swan that is merely perceived.
The poet then turns from the spatial existence of the swan as part of an ecology, to its temporal existence as an evolving species. As we will see, time itself evolves, and the richest temporal experience of something is the one which not only includes the elaborated spatial relations which have arisen out of its past, but also its evolutionary past itself. The poet traces the evolutionary tree of the swan all the way back to the common ancestor that we share with it, and then to the pre-organic matter of the early Earth; and finally, in a further leap, traces that matter back to the Big Bang. In the process such utterly alien organisms as the echiura are literally familiarized, made to feel part of our whole living family.
But it is not enough to analyse, to elicit origins, to deconstruct the exquisite and elaborate forms of contemporary living experience into the “arche-traces” of electromagnetic energy out of which they are made. The poet signals this new turn in the argument by the ambiguous reference to the Uranian Goddess. The phrase is the Sibyl’s, and is part of her suggested and partly withdrawn theology, whereby the Big Bang origin of the universe is retold as the fall into matter, and thus into the beginnings of true awareness, of an original deity. But this deity begins without mind, freedom, inclination to action, or existence in any meaningful sense, because all these things depend upon limitation. Material existence is likened to a dream, but the Sibyl reminds us that consciousness is, after all, only possible for an entity that can dream. Divinity takes on being by taking on limitation. This theological story is partly withdrawn, since after all the properties attributed to the deity are identical to those attributed to it by atheists: that is, nonexistence and insignificance! But it is only partly withdrawn, because the universe, as the evolving fetal body of a god whose neurons we are, is in the process of bringing about a divine integration that, by observing the origin of the universe, partly determines its parameters and future direction.
The point is, though, that mere analysis, mere seeking for origins, is not enough. The poet has already quoted Heraclitus’ aphorism, “the way up is the way down,” though in reverse: the way down is the way up. That is, we can only understand the result and wholeness of a thing by studying its process of origin and its parts. But this study is not enough, and must be reversed to reconstitute the wholeness and result; we err if we believe that it is enough to go back along the path we took to get here. As Virgil says, it is easy to pass back down into Avernus, whence we came when we were born, but to retrace one’s steps: “hoc opus, hic labor est,” this is the toil, this is the task. We must pass through the center of the planet, like Dante and Virgil when they climb past the waist of Satan frozen in the midst of Hell; we find that gravity there reverses itself, and instead of analysing and seeking origins we are now synthesizing and creating. We can now return to the rich and beautiful “default option” of human perception, after having undergone our sojourn in the underworld, our immersion in the past and interior of things. The whale and the swan of the bestiary return, this time as symbols of the crossing of levels, the transcendence of previous limitations, and the bootstrapping evolution of time into higher and higher integrations. The swan’s wings begin to beat, the holy mountain beckons once more, and we can begin to learn to fly.
But for this we need teachers. And now the poem takes what seems to be a strange and irrelevant turn: it tells the story of the willow-pattern, the odd little picture in blue and white that decorates traditional china. This story is actually a test of our new powers of hermeneutical flight. It has four levels.
The first level is that this is a metamorphosis tale; from Virgil we have gone to Ovid, to a naive/sophisticated origin myth or Aesop’s-fable or Just-so story of “how the human being got its wings.” It gets its wings through sacrifice in love, and sacrifice of love; more specifically, by an unsuccessful but self-validating attempt to enjoy a forbidden love, which, in its denial, results in transcendence of the milieu in which that love originated, and enjoyment of that love on a higher level. The characters Wolf and Irene, who are literally the flying-instructors of Mars, have passed through precisely this ordeal. They were forced to renounce their incestuous love for each other in the process of rescuing the Ark of life and carrying it from Earth to Mars.
And here there is a further literary implication, a second level of interpretation: the poet associates brother-sister incest, and the feelings that go with it, with the Romantic movement in poetry. (We do indeed find this theme in the lives of Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and the Brontes, and throughout German and French Romantic literature.) The poet’s critique of Romanticism is not in its discovery and exploration of this psychic realm but in its failure to return with the insights that realm proffers, its failure to renounce and therefore to both preserve and transcend (aufheben) that forbidden love. Thus a new meaning is implied for the Orpheus myth, where the poet, having gained possession of the dead beloved, loses her again by attempting, with his symbolic look backward at her, to consummate their love before it has reached a level where it is lawful. This reproach against Romanticism holds equally against its offspring, modernism and postmodernism; in each case the imagination of the epoch is unable to see beyond the attraction of looking back at Eurydice, of defying the ban against forbidden love. The Genesis -poet’s strange transgression is precisely to obey the ban but, by his faith without ocular or sensual proof that Eurydice is really still there, to render the ban void and harmless: and thus he qualifies as a flying-instructor. This exegesis could be pursued still further, but the very process of interpretation in this sense is the flying that the reader is learning to do by him or herself.
The third level of interpretation–another depth into which one might fly–concerns the medium of the story, the china pattern, and requires some antiquarian knowledge. Why china?–because of all arts this one uses the cheapest and basest materials–mere dirt. But this dirt has, like the tragic love of the twins, been refined and Earthly life to Mars. It is thus that we shall “be as swallows in the air of time.”
One last level of interpretation concerns the strange relationship between the poet and myself, his redactor and twentieth-century mouthpiece. The name of the English china-manufacturer who invented the willow pattern was Turner, which is my name; one of the meanings of the word “turn” is to translate or to transmute. And the name of the poet of the story–to pass from medium to message–is Chang, which is my wife’s maiden name. She, like the willow pattern, is a double import, in ancestry from China to Britain, and in person from Britain to America. Our family china pattern is the willow; and it has become for us a symbol of our marriage, as the olive-tree bed was for that of Odysseus and Penelope. Thus in some way the poet of Genesis has complicated by translation and importation the life of an obscure professor and essayist of the late twentieth century.
In the next passage the poet refers to an earlier episode in the poem in which Wolf, Irene, and Chance the Younger, as children, invent the techniques of flight on Mars. Evolution often proceeds from the neotenic or infant stage of the organism; likewise here. The irony is that nature has given us an unnatural yearning to fly, a yearning that expresses itself in our dreams; the only way in which that yearning could become natural, and issue forth in an appropriate physical behavior, is through the “unnatural” transformation of Mars into an Earth-type planet and by means of the technology of artificial wings. Nature is fantastical and cruel rather than wise, as the history of species extinction proves; so our human fantasies are entirely in keeping with it.
Now, finally, we get a straightforward and slightly comic flying-lesson from Wolf who, though a hero like the aviator-poet-children’s writer Saint-Exupéry, necessarily sounds like any scuba or skydiving instructor. The lightness of the tone matches the lightness of Martian gravity; but though the weight mass of our beginning fliers is diminished, their inertial mass, the gravitas of their own being, is not.
Flying is a game, as the poet says; but it is a game that is also a parable of salvation. “If you have ears to hear”–the quotation from Jesus (line 176) changes the tone once more, to one of severe exegetical precision. Once more the poet will make us descend through the evolutionary levels, down the tree of internal structure and past evolution; completing after a long parenthesis, as it were, the biological description of the swan begun over a hundred lines before. As Rilke says, we must trace Orpheus through the intricate branches of his lyre. The lyre in this passage is the swan’s wing, with its intricate hierarchy of structures: wing, feather, quill, barb, barbule, hooklet. This hierarchy exhibits the property of self-similarity across different scales, or internal symmetry, a property characteristic of the fractal attractors of chaotic (or more accurately, antichaotic) nonlinear positive-feedback self-organizing dynamical systems. The poet follows the Sibyl in seeing the entire evolution of the cosmos as driven by such systems, and in identifying the human experience of beauty with an inherited but trained capacity to perceive their attractors at work.
Jesus’ injunction to interpret the parables is explained in the parables themselves in terms of the germination and branching growth of seeds. In the Greco-Roman tradition too, and throughout the great branching tree of the Indo-European languages–and perhaps the great tree of all human languages–meaning is associated with seeds. The words sememe, semiotics, semantic all derive from the same root as semen and seed; and the very process of “derivation,” a “turning,” whether mathematical or etymological, is modeled by the branching growth and descent of plants and animals. In this case the corn seed or mustardseed which Jesus used to describe the kingdom of heaven has been unpacked–or watered to make it grow. The passage now implies that the DNA of life, and words, are two media in the same evolutionary process, DNA part of the microstructure of verbal language, poetry a faster form of living growth, life a slower form of poetry.
The word “light,” in line 178, is an obvious pun, but one with further depths. Like any other piece of matter, the wing is made of light, which is in itself weightless. But the self-similar recursiveness of its structure compensates–gives a countervailing weight–for the otherwise unbearable and intangible lightness of its being. If a large enough bundle of light (mc2 worth) is trapped by its own energies into a self-containing feedback system, it becomes a ponderable particle of matter. The light wing achieves weight, both in the sense of mass and in the sense of biotechnological usefulness, through its recursiveness, in which is recapitulated the entire evolutionary history that gave it birth.
The Sibyl brings us back to the theme of time by reminding us that our own experience of time, though apparently simple, is, as J.T. Fraser has brilliantly shown, composite and constituted by a nested hierarchy of temporal levels–nootemporality, biotemporality, eotemporality, prototemporality, and atemporality–that are like the inner, “deep” structures of the swan’s wing that go to make up its outward simplicity. The Sibyl is the prophetess or messiah of the the new world of Mars. This parable is hers; she compares the wing–with which we are all invited to fly–with the nature of human time. Human time is not merely a space-like dimension, but layered, carrying within it a history of our evolution, together with the characteristic conflicts that have arisen within, between, and in the moments of emergence of its levels. Thus when we “fly”–which in this sense means to interpret with the full powers of the spirit–we become aware of all the inner construction by which we make the world concrete and meaningful, and the sacrificial history of time, by which nature–now concentrated into mind–achieved that construction.
And here the metaphorical and literal meanings of “fly” are becoming more and more indistinguishably fused: the flying-students’ wings, after all, have been cloned by Ganesh’s biotechnology out of chimerical bamboo and swan genes! The wing is the metaphor. The new kind of metaphor is a concrete piece of technology. It is also a metonym and a synecdoche, and an example of a genetic process which is itself a continuation of the evolutionary process of increasing self-reflection and positive feedback that is the central theme of the poem. This density of meaning restores the richness of medieval interpretation, in which the literal, the allegorical, the anagogical, and the moral formed a super-real density of being in their mutual identity. A sufficiently powerful metaphor is technologically efficacious, and does what it means. A sufficiently beautiful piece of technology becomes the perfect metaphor for its own function.
The next three lines are perhaps the densest in the whole poem.
(. . . 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!)
This parenthesis is a verbal example of that interpretive depth, with which we are invited to fly. For instance:
Pen– 1. A quill or feather.
2. The instrument of écriture–now somewhat obsolete, but part of the evolution of writing.
3. An enclosure or constraint; metaphorically, a law, like that which forbids the love of Wolf and Irene.
4. A female mute swan. It is in Irene’s character (unlike that of most Van Riebeck women, who are very eloquent) to keep silent, as she does in this passage. Perhaps there is a suggestion that human evolution required the sacrifice of speech, and writing, by the many mute women–mothers especially–who are not commemorated in history. But in Irene’s case, she has made the opposite sacrifice, giving up her baby (who turns out to be the Sibyl herself) in order to be the bearer of the Ark of earthly life to Mars.
5. Faint contextual connotations of a Knight’s banner or pennon (see the next line, and line 148, where Wolf is a “sky-dauphin,” evoking Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Windhover, another flying “chevalier”); also perhaps penitentiary or penance, and of course penis.
Woven–1. Refers to the fractal-like technology by which a one-dimensional thread is turned into a two-dimensional sheet–and thus, metaphorically, to the activity of the strands of DNA and RNA, to writing, and perhaps to the transformation of a computer program into a graphic or a physical reality.
2. Traditionally connotes the work of a woman’s womb in forming a fetus, one of the key metaphors for the ecological transformation of Mars.
3. Metaphorical reference to the work of storytelling (“spinning a yarn,” etc, and to the weaving of fate.
Pinion– 1. A bird’s wing.
2. A feather: thus this word refers to both the whole and the part, and suggests the fractal self-similarity of a wing.
3. To bind or restrain.
4. To cut off the flight section of a bird’s wing in order to domesticate it: both these last meanings refer to the sacrifices by which the level-jumps of evolution are achieved, including the sacrifice of certain knowledge that would be necessary to ensure that Eurydice be recovered.
Prince– 1. One of the seven or twelve brothers in the old folktale of the princess whose brothers are transformed by witchcraft into swans. She restores them to human form by weaving them shirts out of nettles–all but the youngest brother, whose shirt lacked a sleeve, and who thus retained a swan’s wing instead of an arm.
2. The prince in the other fairy-tale, with whom the fairy swan-princess falls in love, and who must give up her immortality to do so. (This tale is culturally universal.)
3. In other contexts in the poem, Lohengrin the swan-prince.
Bears– 1. Carries, as in the way a wing carries a flier.
2. As in an armorial bearing–thus, a reference to the syntax of heraldic signification.
3. Gives birth to.
Sister–contextual reference to Irene and Wolf, whose relationship involves a deliberately suppressed and sacrificed incestuous element in the story; this suppression is the constraint, or pinion, or penance, that has enabled them both to carry the book of genetic codes from Earth to Mars and to invent the new techniques of human-powered flight. Thus collectively this set of words implies the whole process of sacrifice and nomogenesis by which evolution produced human beings.
Fly with it–This triple injunction is an extension of the quotation from Jesus by which the passage began: he who has ears to hear, let him hear. To fly is to hear, in this sense.
The following passage, which I will not analyse in depth, is a naturalistic and sensory description of flight, but also a metaphorical description of the pleasures of interpretation and meaning-making. We have returned here to the “default option” of human sensory perception, but now enriched by the awareness of everything that lies beneath the surface of the “many-colored coat of mortal dwelling”–the present moment and the beautiful appearances of the world. The joy of this experience is beyond “jouissance”; it is a sharing in the divine joy of creation.