Sometimes a single photograph stops the world. A month ago, this indistinct image on the front page of every newspaper: a ring of fire. It shines brightest at the base, a gaseous grimace. Nothing so simple as a photograph, no! it’s a file forged of algorithms, an astral truth drawn from data held on half a tonne of hard drives, from telescopes in eight locations around the world.
The distant ring is just the beginning: the burning dust and gas that hovers on the horizon of a black hole, an infinitely small space into which it will be sucked and crushed. No matter can escape that central silhouette, not even light. Other images of black holes will follow, the newspapers say, scientists are working on the Milky Way today, but no one thinks we will ever observe the activity within.
I barely noticed this phenomenon. A whole week of politics and progress lost in a move between two small countries. I turned the hour hand on my watch forward sixty minutes; I circled the streets of a new city. Each day my orbit increased another mile: the market, the cafes; the gardens, the old island, the seven hills. I became human in a new language.
I watched spring arrive. The lilac bloomed and died in various colours, a few swifts darted above the river. Life as kaleidoscope grit, fragments shaken into patterns on the planet’s surface. All the while into black holes, furious time rushes, taking along the clichés, the best efforts. The compass spins on north. The serpent eats its tail. Where the ring appears to burn most brightly, that’s where it is closest to us. Closest to our sometime stopping world.
This encounter at a cold border is a vanishing point.
Molecules begin to slow, their bonds fuse and fix
as [ice] forms from [water] and melts back to [water].
Oceans open to the sky. All [water] knows the fury of tides
even when molecules slow, when bonds momentarily fix.
[Ice] grows from an impurity, a brine-ridden hint of dignity
creeping over the oceans. All [water] knows the fury of the tides,
can bear the weight of any [ice]. The glacier advances to the coast.
[Ice] grows from an impurity: tiny, crystalline and seven-fold.
The ocean’s leaden currents slip beneath old floes
to mine the secrecy of [ice]. Bergs split from the glacier,
dancing with new partners, and turning like the planets
while warm ocean currents slip over dark crevasses—
seams of coal deep down where once sequoias grew.
The continental plates migrate, echoing the planets,
concealing fossil fuels that might conduct electric light
lying rock-bound, inaccessible, where once sequoias grew
before this encounter at a cold border, a vanishing point.
Conductor of stars and silence, refusing to fuel our noise,
[ice] forms from [water] and will melt back to [water].
He learnt to read snow,
to trace footprints in ice.
Sun melted his books.
He went missing last winter
when the path became water –
the end of his story
is known to the sea.
THE COMPASS ROSE
We draw together
as the world pulls apart.
Friends, I’d cross the coldest continent with you.
The red needle points north,
the blue points south.
A rotating circle at the heart:
a red vein – brings back the old blood
a radar – tracks what’s too far off to see
a red thread – binds us together
If one of us slips into a crevasse
I can’t save you, you can’t save me –
this cord between us saves us both.
We thought we were here to map the ice
but we are walking on clouds
as they are burning away
A strong spring tide sucks the sea
back under the ice, and leaves a cave
glinting with black bivalves.
I will fetch you a feast.
When the ice sinks by an inch I will slice a hole in it
and slide down on my upturned sled
from cloud world to a closed world.
I will find a colony of shells.
I’ll pluck each hissing mussel from its byssus.
My spittle comes sure as the trickle of water, far-off
but fast approaching.
I promise I will listen.
When the lamp flares the weak air is warning me –
soon the whole sea will surge back
over the sleeping rocks.
I will always think of you.
Until the limp strands of kelp lift around my feet
and I dip my fingertips in cold brine
and the lamp flickers out
I will stay.
When the ice creaks, it is rising again, forced up
by water that is forced back by all the water
in the world.
HOW TO DISCOVER AN ELEMENT
Learn that the universe is formed of dark matter and ordinary matter. Dark matter is too vast for the mind to grasp. Ordinary matter is comprehensible, being composed of elements. These elements are infinitesimal, everywhere; they were formed aeons ago by stardust. Heady stuff, but the numbers on paper – they are certainties.
Join the line of other curious humans: ancient people who looked closely at the earth and found carbon, gold, silver and copper, found and named them, and learnt their uses. Study recent research, the work of the previous generation. Some assumptions go unquestioned; question them. Devise your own version of Mendeleev’s organizational chart of known elements. Believe in unknown elements.
Believe in endless transmutation, have a vision of fission. Even as the world fractures, believe in integrity at the Earth’s core, believe in the future.
Work with someone you trust. Build your laboratory where you can: in a cellar, in a corridor, in a converted castle; in another country. Soon, in these dark times, there will be many who cannot work anywhere at all.
Experiment. Every day the same routine, every day a step off a precipice. Make risk part of your process, and practice persistence.
Develop an ability to find one thing hidden within another by analysing X-ray spectra. Order up rare earth metals and minerals deep mined in five continents – platinum ore and columbite, gadolinite and molybdenite. Look in hundreds of kilos of everything, though you find next to nothing in anything.
Extract one gram, the standard quantity required for proof. Give it a name and a number. In a rare show of sentiment, call it after the old name for the river beside which your beloved was born. It will be voted in, placed in the periodic table.
Describe the element’s character: a heavy, silver-grey metal, a close-packed crystal structure. Note at what temperature it melts, at what temperature it boils. Publish your findings. Should you even ask, now: will it be useful, will it be dangerous? Will it become a part of the engines of planes or form the fixtures of bombs?
Ida Tacke (25 February 1896 – 24 September 1978) was one of the first women in Germany to study chemistry. In 1925 it was reported that she had detected, along with Walter Noddack and Otto Berg, a new element (“Zwei neue Elemente der Mangangruppe”, Chemischer Teil). The researchers named this element rhenium (75) after the Rhine which flowed through Tacke’s birthplace; they also identified masurium (43), named for the Masur lake region of Prussia where Noddack was born. Tacke and Noddack married the following year. From 1956, they pursued their research at Villa Concordia, while the building was used as the State Research Institute of Geochemistry; they never repeated their success, but Ida Noddack was nominated for the Nobel Prize in chemistry three times.
“We’re inevitable,” you’d say. I would laugh, counting the change in the drawer, or restacking the trays, but watching you, always watching you. You used to complain about being stuck inside when we were working, but I never felt trapped. I would watch you coming from a mile away, walking slowly down the long hall between the food court and the game store that used to be a music store that used to be a video store. You would visit me, leaning against the pickup counter and flirting through your break, even though I always smelled like sweet grease. You liked to say that the smell was still better than the taste, which was true.
They say that dead malls sprawl across America, to the extent that a monolith can sprawl. Apparently malls are being killed by big box stores, or gentrification, or Amazon, depending on who you ask. The malls, though, were killers, too. An old man used to stand outside the exit by the movie theater with a sign, yelling how the mall killed all the mom ’n’ pops.
Usually the food courts hang on longest. Even after the game store closed, you still came to visit me at ours, even though the ring of counters threw off just enough light to make the darkened hallways spooky. “Like dead limbs,” you’d say. I would shiver, or laugh, or ignore you.
Until the day you dropped me off and the doors were chained shut. “Mall’s finished, honey,” Tracy from the smoothie shop called from her car. I looked at her, then at the padlock in my hand, like it might still fall open, let me inside. “Roof collapsed, down by the Christmas shop. Too expensive to fix.”
Through the windows, the fluorescents were still lit, making long stripes across the floor. I turned around to look for you, but I could already see your car at the far end of the parking lot, taking a right on red out onto the road. “You need a ride, baby?” Tracy asked, opening the passenger door. I took a deep breath, the opposite of a sigh, and turned back to her. “That would be great.”
While I was growing her, I couldn’t help but dream up possible lives she might live. They sprouted, unbidden, incessant and iterative, linking together in an impossible web of futures. “Like a daisy chain,” I say, remembering.
“Like weeds,” she says, laughing. “When there were weeds.”
She trawls her eyes through the charred underbrush, and gently places another mushroom in the sack. She spots the changes in texture and light that I usually miss; I tell myself it’s because she’s so much smaller. Closer to the ground. But it feels like we have different kinds of eyes.
I let her peer into piles of leaves, and I watch her hair as the wind blows it over one shoulder. While I was growing her, I knew what my body was for. And before it was growing her, my body was growing me. I haven’t figured out yet what I’m growing now. I watch her digging gently through the earth, and my body feels like all the gas pumps, plinthed into cracked concrete, tubes ossified where they reach for a empty tanks.
I crouch down and drag my finger through a patch of old ash, drawing a crude, childish flower: a circle, five loops around it, a stem. “Love me, love me not,” I say, and she looks back at me. “We used to pull the petals off, to predict the future.” I thought she would be shocked, or angry, by the violence or the waste, but instead she tilts her head.
“But you knew the future,” she says carefully, and I think of my mother, the time I broke my arm in three places, the way she stared at the X-ray like something wasn’t adding up. In front of me, my daughter’s eyes squint. We live on opposite sides of the end of the world. She turns back, and drops another mushroom into the sack.