Word Cloud: CONVERGENCE

by NONA BLYTH CLOUD

Writing a weekly column about poetry is sometimes frustrating. It’s a subject that so many people in my country find “irrelevant” to Modern Life.

But if three contestants in this week’s Jeopardy! Teachers’ Tournament had been reading my column, they would probably have known the correct response to the last clue in the “African-American Firsts” category:  This woman was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize. There was even a picture of her.


Not one of the three teachers, including a young black woman, rang in.

“Who is Gwendolyn Brooks?” (She won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry)

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) published over 20 books of poetry, and she was also the first black woman to be U.S. Poet Laureate (1985-1986)

If you only know two names of African American women poets, you should know Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks. (I think you should also know Audre Lorde **, but then she’s one of my personal heroes, and I’m crazy about her poetry.)

However, it isn’t just African American women poets that even teachers can’t name.


Quick, who won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry?

Frank Bidart (1939 – ), for Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016

(In the photo, he’s wearing the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry medal, which he also won)

You may not have heard of him because Bidart is a Californian. Since most major publishers are in New York City, which notoriously regards California as Utterly Lacking in Culture, it often takes even longer for the merit of work by California poets to be recognized.


And who is the current U.S. Poet Laureate?

Tracy K. Smith, another African American woman poet, who also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, in 2012, for Life on Mars. Her term as U.S. Poet Laureate was recently extended through 2019.

And – surprise! – she is the actual topic of this week’s column. Sometimes, I just have to vent.

Tracy K. Smith (1972 – ) was born on April 16, 1972, in Falmouth, Massachusetts, the youngest of five children. She grew up in Fairfield, California, but then headed East. She studied at Harvard, where she joined the Dark Room Collective, a reading series for writers of color, and then went on to receive her MFA from Columbia University. She returned to California, just for a Stegner fellowship at Stanford University (1997-1999), and then went East again.

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Convergence is one of the most important ideas about the Universe. It’s looking at how really different branches of science are still fundamentally linked. A number of 19th century scientists from different disciplines, including William Robert Grove, Hermann von Helmholtz and William Rankine, worked on the nature of energy and its conservation, at about the same time that Charles Darwin was working on his theory of evolution by natural selection. This led to scientists to thinking about the convergence of scientific ideas, and how they connected to the Universe.

I think convergence is even bigger than that. Ideas from “unrelated” fields, like the Arts and Religion, also converge with Science. Smith’s poem about the sounds of the universe comes not just from motion picture soundtracks, but also from Radio Astronomy recordings, a frequent inspiration for soundtracks of SciFi movies. 

The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The first track still almost swings. High hat and snare, even
A few bars of sax the stratosphere will singe-out soon enough.

Synthesized strings. Then something like cellophane
Breaking in as if snagged to a shoe. Crinkle and drag. White noise,

Black noise. What must be voices bob up, then drop, like metal shavings
In molasses. So much for us. So much for the flags we bored

Into planets dry as chalk, for the tin cans we filled with fire
And rode like cowboys into all we tried to tame. Listen:

The dark we’ve only ever imagined now audible, thrumming,
Marbled with static like gristly meat. A chorus of engines churns.

Silence taunts: a dare. Everything that disappears
Disappears as if returning somewhere.


“The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” from Life on Mars, © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith – Graywolf Press

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What will the Future be like? A question that really points to convergence. Writers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury have written stories which inspired young readers to become scientists, inventors and astronauts, who have sometimes succeeded in turning those writers’ fantasies into reality. Fantastical devices in the worlds of TV and Motion Picture Sci-Fi go from the screen to the marketplace. Tracy Smith’s version of a far-off future is subtly disturbing. It’s not a place I’d feel very comfortable – how about you?

Sci-Fi

There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.

History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,

Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.

Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,

Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.

For kicks, we’ll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.

The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned

To the Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.

And yes, we’ll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,

Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once

And for all, scrutable and safe.


“Sci-Fi” from Life on Mars, © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith – Graywolf Press

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Of course, a lot of science is about the Past. An article in Nature magazine made Tracy Smith imagine what and how a woman, from a different species of human who lived 18,000 years ago, might think.

Flores Woman

A species of tiny human has been discovered, which lived on the remote Indonesian island of Flores just 18,000 years ago. . . . Researchers have so far unearthed remains from eight individuals who were just one metre tall, with grapefruit-sized skulls. These astonishing little people . . . made tools, hunted tiny elephants and lived at the same time as modern humans who were colonizing the area. . . . . . . . . . . — Nature, October 2004

Light: lifted, I stretch my brief body.
Color: blaze of day behind blank eyes.

Sound: birds stab greedy beaks
Into trunk and seed, spill husk

Onto the heap where my dreaming
And my loving live.

Every day I wake to this.

Tracks follow the heavy beasts
Back to where they huddle, herd.

Hunt: a dance against hunger.
Music: feast and fear.

This island becomes us.

Trees cap our sky. It rustles with delight
In a voice green as lust. Reptiles

Drag night from their tails,
Live by the dark. A rage of waves

Protects the horizon, which we would devour.
One day I want to dive in and drift,

Legs and arms wracked with danger.
Like a dark star. I want to last.


“Flores Woman” from Duende, © 2007 by Tracy K. Smith – Graywolf Press

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Of course, no one is philosophical all the time. These next poems reveal something about Smith’s struggles in earlier years.

I Don’t Miss It

But sometimes I forget where I am,
Imagine myself inside that life again.

Recalcitrant mornings. Sun perhaps,
Or more likely colorless light

Filtering its way through shapeless cloud.

And when I begin to believe I haven’t left,
The rest comes back. Our couch. My smoke

Climbing the walls while the hours fall.
Straining against the noise of traffic, music,

Anything alive, to catch your key in the door.
And that scamper of feeling in my chest,

As if the day, the night, wherever it is
I am by then, has been only a whir

Of something other than waiting.

We hear so much about what love feels like.
Right now, today, with the rain outside,

And leaves that want as much as I do to believe
In May, in seasons that come when called,

It’s impossible not to want
To walk into the next room and let you

Run your hands down the sides of my legs,
Knowing perfectly well what they know.


“I Don’t Miss It“ from Duende, © 2007 by Tracy K. Smith – Graywolf Press

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The Good Life

When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
Who went out to buy milk and never
Came back, and it makes me nostalgic
For the years I lived on coffee and bread,
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
From a village without a well, then living
One or two nights like everyone else
On roast chicken and red wine.


“The Good Life” from Life on Mars, © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith – Graywolf Press

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Here, Smith pays tribute to David Bowie, but expands the poem into past, present and future, a converging of the specific, the personal and the universal.

Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?

1.

After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure

That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?

Would I put on my coat and return to the kitchen where my
Mother and father sit waiting, dinner keeping warm on the stove?
Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep
Or charging through his veins. And he’ll never grow old,
Just like the woman you lost, who will always be dark-haired

And flush-faced, running toward an electronic screen
That clocks the minutes, the miles left to go. Just like the life
In which I’m forever a child looking out my window at the night sky
Thinking one day I’ll touch the world with bare hands
Even if it burns.

2.

He leaves no tracks. Slips past, quick as a cat. That’s Bowie
For you: the Pope of Pop, coy as Christ. Like a play
Within a play, he’s trademarked twice. The hours

Plink past like water from a window A/C. We sweat it out,
Teach ourselves to wait. Silently, lazily, collapse happens.
But not for Bowie. He cocks his head, grins that wicked grin.

Time never stops, but does it end? And how many lives
Before take-off, before we find ourselves
Beyond ourselves, all glam-glow, all twinkle and gold?

The future isn’t what it used to be. Even Bowie thirsts
For something good and cold. Jets blink across the sky
Like migratory souls.

3.

Bowie is among us. Right here
In New York City. In a baseball cap
And expensive jeans. Ducking into
A deli. Flashing all those teeth
At the doorman on his way back up.
Or he’s hailing a taxi on Lafayette
As the sky clouds over at dusk.
He’s in no rush. Doesn’t feel
The way you’d think he feels.
Doesn’t strut or gloat. Tells jokes.

I’ve lived here all these years
And never seen him. Like not knowing
A comet from a shooting star.
But I’ll bet he burns bright,
Dragging a tail of white-hot matter
The way some of us track tissue
Back from the toilet stall. He’s got
The whole world under his foot,
And we are small alongside,
Though there are occasions

When a man his size can meet
Your eyes for just a blip of time
And send a thought like SHINE
SHINE SHINE SHINE SHINE
Straight to your mind. Bowie,
I want to believe you. Want to feel
Your will like the wind before rain.
The kind everything simply obeys,
Swept up in that hypnotic dance
As if something with the power to do so
Had looked its way and said:

Go ahead.


“Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” from Life on Mars, © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith – Graywolf Press

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Tracy K. Smith received the 2014 Academy of American Poets Fellowship. In addition, she is the author of three award-winning books of poetry, and a memoir, Ordinary Light, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. Smith is currently the director of Princeton University’s creative writing program.


Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone—a momentary blip—
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,
Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones
At whatever are their moons. They live wondering
If they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,
And the great black distance they—we—flicker in.


– from Part 3 of “My God, It’s Full of Stars” (Life on Mars,
© 2011 by Tracy K. Smith – Graywolf Press)

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Tracy K. Smith – please remember her name.

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Bibliography

Poetry

Life on Mars (2011)
Duende (2007)
The Body’s Question (2003)

Prose

Ordinary Light: A Memoir (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)


** For more about Audre Lorde, go to Word Cloud: AFTERIMAGE -https://flowersforsocrates.com/2016/08/05/word-cloud-afterimage/


Visuals

  • Gwendolyn Brooks
  •  Frank Bidart
  • Tracy K. Smith – photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
  • Galaxy
  • Representation of the speed of light
  • Model of Homo-floresiensis
  • Woman sitting in a window at night
  • Glass of red wine
  • David Bowie

Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 45 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband and a bewildered Border Collie.
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4 Responses to Word Cloud: CONVERGENCE

  1. Terry Welshans says:

    I like the word converge very much as I am a visual person and can recognize convergence even when two or more separate object are quite a ways apart. In terms of thoughts, I do not do as well, but once it takes shape, I like to watch a conversation converge between individuals.

  2. wordcloud9 says:

    I’ve often seen weird connections between ideas and events that other people don’t notice – sometimes I’d wonder if they really exist anywhere outside my imagination. So I was happy years ago when I read about Convergence as a scientific concept – at least I wasn’t the only one!

    • There used to be a documentary-educational television program called “Connections.” The host was science historian James Burke. It was excellent, and showed how almost everything was connected to everything else in some way.

      Hearkened back to the “butterfly effect” theory.

      • wordcloud9 says:

        “Connections” was an excellent series, but I did have one major quarrel with James Burke – he said that the Arts never had any major impact on history – considering how many people today are scientists and astronauts because they were inspired by Jules Verne and Ray Bradbury, I think he’s missed a lot of connections . . .

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