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The presocratic, surfing, breathing cosmology blues....

When the great waters went everywhere, holding the germ, and generating light, Then there arose from them the breath of the gods.

- "Hymn to the Unknown God" from the Rig Veda

Let's get real gone.

- Elvis Presley

The idea of an infinite number of stars brought Newton to his knees, for that would turn the sky into a blazing haze - flame rises naturally - and so reasoned Empedocles Homer, and Anaxagoras who filled the farthest reaches with fiery light. . . .

The back pages of cosmic history blow open, a bright litter of particles swimming in the blue backwash of quasars, kernels back at the beginning smoldering finally through to us now, telescopes probing not just into space but into time. . . .

So galaxies in the Coma Cluster appear to us as they looked seven hundred million years ago, about the time the first jellyfish - its own roseate nucleus of cells and spinning arms - was developing on earth,

where, some years later, I would turn up at 9, walking tip toe along Miramar Beach, avoiding the pink and scattered nebulae washed up for a mile around - a sting like hot coals, a cold quivering mass of burning stars.

Or where I sit now, admiring a sugar maple, flag of impending flame, angelic breathing we attribute to trees as we bivouac at the perimeter of nothing as instrumental as beauty, and are mainly recursive, among other elemental things.

What wouldn't it be worth to have time again to worry about incursions of fog over the blacktop, the starry orange groves dissolving on the drive to school, to worry about the spelling of grey or gray, or Mississippi, the mysterious lives of Saints, a laundry line of levitating, miracles commemorated along the church's tomb-dark walls

where beeswax candles, placed cross-wise on my throat, would save me from choking on the bones of fish, and holy water sprinkled along the air keep a sea-wide iniquity from seeping under the closed door of the soul so I might be admitted to the beatific company of clouds, the clear apertures in an updraft of wind.

And I in fact sometimes pondered the unsubstantiated Soul - invisible, but something just the same - like a glass of water filled to different levels during music class, sounding a high or low note as a finger orbited the transparent rim.

Or in back bookcases, The World Book Encyclopedia, all the blank space edging dark columns of letters proclaiming the Hittites' fierce knowledge of iron, the Code of Hammurabi, The Lighthouse at Pharos, and the first space capsule burning like a thimble of coal in the stratosphere.

Yet, when we think about it, our youth lasts all our lives, trailing us like a comet tail of ice and dust, or the way angels, like knots in a rope of light, are still let down to us from the dark in Caravaggio's first "St. Matthew," the one sent up in flames in the bombing of Berlin

whose atoms are still associated in the gray haze that constantly resettles that sky, reclaiming its dust in the thin half-light of loss, in the past riding that freight of light out to a universe where all things are contingent upon each other, upon, as Anaximander had it, "The Indefinite."

There's much that matters in that dark where my hands are full of the brilliant dross off the recent edge of discovery, data no one in school had the least idea existed when I took my D in General Science.

Now I'm writing it all down - Vacuum Genesis, Lookback Time - thinking I'm getting somewhere, only to realize I need another course in Italian Cinema just to make the metaphors make sense!

Was it Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice or Vitorio De Sica's Brief Vacation? Dirk Bogarde on the Lido coughing out the dark matter of his lungs for some blond boy in a bathing suit as Mahler's symphony moved like a cloud of melting glass over the sea,

or that beaten angel of a housewife escaping her truck driving, mule-headed husband in Torino with black stars on her X-rays, a silt of light slowing in her veins which took her up to the state sanitarium in the Snowy Alps, a comet-quick brush with a younger man reconstituting the rose-colored clouds of her lungs, but sending her finally back?

And I remember holding my breath, the universe expanding inside my lungs as I was tumbled like a rag in the spin-cycle of a ten foot surf a quarter mile off shore, riding the point break at Rincon and plunged into the white salt-roar of froth, my chest burning as I shot up to that heaven

of air above the surface - and while heaven could, in theory, have been anywhere, it was there that minute as I swallowed the air's cool light, mindless of every molecule and the constant state of flux all things are in.

And regardless of the frenzy of atoms and the sub-atomic voids, I'd have sold my soul for my dinged-up plank, anything to hold to and fill my flattened pipes before the next wave with its five feet of churning soup rolled in, beneath which I'd have to dive, count ten, and come up again gasping toward a low tide of rocks.

In college, staring out past the spires of Italian cypress, wind bending the invisible blue beyond the second story classroom windows, the thick glass sinking, soaked with old light, the Presocratics were proclaiming the single source to everything. Half conscious, at swim in the 60s, I was reaching for the first idea that would keep my head above dark waters.

And, like Einstein, whom I hadn't read, I didn't bother about the details and showing my work - all the math and elegant equations - I just wanted to know what was on God's mind when he shook up this boule de niege and let time-space float out and gather here with our little neighborhood of respiration and recourse to nothing but light?

But, at 19, I had recourse to little beyond beer and the bylaws of poker? Was it or wasn't it Air? Aneximines proclaimed everything was - just rarefied and condensed - while Thales assured us all things were water, and I'd seen plenty of that.

They both fared better than Heraclitus who favored fire - for, the obvious consideration of our weight aside, as air, we were almost spirits already, and shouldn't we shine then at last among the aethers? Yet sinking in the specific gravity of over 40 years, the best I come up with most nights is moonlight through the trees, its mist lifting almost imperceptibly through the leaves. . . .

It turns out the Ionians were not far off track; cosmic radiation - the original red hot atomic spin and background hum - can be tuned-in from any cold rock in a universe 90% back-filled with a dark and missing theoretical matter - that bang and microwave broadcast even the deaf still hear. . . .

And so, I have little more on hand than air and a forecast of air where it is unlikely I'll find myself free of the old aptitude of starlight to break our hearts - though I look into the infinite, the nothingness, the nowhere, and the dark as if I recognized the light in its last disguise.

Christopher Buckley's collection of creative nonfiction, Cruising State: Growing Up In Southern California, was published by the University of Nevada Press in 1994. This poem is from his eighth book of poetry, Camino Cielo, due out from Orchises Press in January, 1997.
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Author:Buckley, Christopher
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:May 1, 1996
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