Entry 85: Spray– A billion years ago, in a distant galaxy, two massive black holes began a Brobdingnagian dance. As they made mutual approach at half the speed of light, they circled one another 250 times a second before colliding with explosive effect releasing more energy in a fifth of a second than that of all the stars in the universe.
Not comparable to the big bang, but prodigious enough all the same. Meanwhile, here on earth, green algae were about to make the scene. Fast forward a billion years and normally sedate scientists are dancing a jig because, after 44 years of trying, their super-computers detected the infinitesimal movement of mirrors in big L-shaped arrays in Washington state and Louisiana. The discovery of gravitational waves that register as middle C in the scale means that we can now listen to the cosmos and may even be able to hear the sounds of the birth of the universe at the point of creation.
Pretty cool all round for the nerds among us- the meek-mannered pointy-heads are, indeed about to inherit the earth. Meanwhile, back among the knuckle-draggers, I froth and fume over macro stuff like injustice, destruction of habitat and general hypocrisy as well as micro stuff like personal regret, ageing and general dissolution.
For me, T. S. Eliot set the scene for this sort of navel-gazing with his world-weary Sweeney Among the Nightingales, written in 1918 where his protagonist relaxes in a low bar somewhere in South America, Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees/ Letting his arms hang down to laugh. One of the ladies of the establishment makes her play, Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees/Slips and pulls the table cloth/Overturns a coffee cup. An air of diffuse menace pervades the poem as, The waiter brings in oranges/bananas figs and hot-house grapes.
The stars above are veiled by cloud and Sweeney hears nightingales sing near a convent as they sang millennia ago when Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon in his bath. Eliot expands and elaborates on this milieu in his masterly 1920 poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.
When I first read these poems in Belfast in the autumn term of 1968, I felt superior to and sorry for J Alfred and Apeneck. Had I bothered to attend the relevant lectures I would probably have learned that Sweeney’s appellation was pronounced Ape Neck and not Ah pen eck. For a few years I laboured under the misapprehension that Sweeney was likely the product of an Irish father and a middle-European mother, perhaps a dark-eyed fortune-teller from exotic Bratislava.
But I was young, arrogant, ignorant and cursed with the idea that I had some talent for writing. Not for me then, (heaven forfend!) merely the role of an attendant lord; and further still in the future, even a dim understanding of the lines,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,/ I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;/ I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,/ And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker.
Let’s not forget the kicker, And in short, I was afraid.
When did I become such a pusillanimous poltroon?
As a kid in Aruba, I explored caves and abandoned phosphate mines, snorkelled over reefs patrolled by barracuda, where conger and moray eels lurked, built rafts and launched out, oblivious of dangers, into the Caribbean Sea, accepted dares to leap off roofs and run buck naked along the beach road as people at the Esso Club gaped.
Today, fear masquerades as apathy- I don’t want to do that, go there, meet them or talk to you. I watch myself become more careful: careful not to drive too fast, careful not to drink or eat too much, careful not to give offence- and I hate myself for it.
One of my favourite authors is Raymond Carver. Fear pervades So Much Water So Close to Home, one of the most chilling accounts of death- first, that of a young woman and then trust in a relationship. Paul Kelly, arguably Australia’s best songwriter, penned a song based on this short story. Raymond Carver was a poet as well as a writer of short stories and he wrote about fear in verse, too.
Fear this day will end on an unhappy note./Fear of waking up to find you gone./Fear of not loving and fear of not loving enough/.Fear that what I love will prove lethal to those I love./Fear of death./Fear of living too long./Fear of death./I’ve said that.
I hope that the explosive mating of two black holes a billion years ago where three solar masses turned to pure energy sending ripples through space-time will somehow shift the mirrors of my soul infinitesimally so that I see reflected someone still recognisably me but somehow altered for the better as I find the words to express more confidence than I presently possess, and fashion the notes to be able to sing a better tune rising from middle C.