The Big Picture*
The man on the radio is speaking of his specialty
and passion, theoretical astrophysics. The interviewer
frets the big ones, wants to know what is there, on
the other side of the end of the universe. Wants
to know what it was was then before the Big Bang happened.
I’ve heard these questions before; heard my son, at seven,
brood over them, though not so much now as when he was five.
You try, at some point, to place yourself in the here and now.
The astronomer has kept his mind open to these wide questions,
the ones we don’t want to think of, the ones that make us
I imagine him lying sleepless, restless in the stars’
old light, the sheets furrowed anxiously around him, not
listening for a child’s cry or cough, not making grocery
lists or emotional agendas but insomniac with worry
over the big picture. On the radio his voice
is eager: before the Big Bang, everything that we are now
was already all there, compressed in some inexplicable form.
(And inside the ovum in every girl child, I think, compressed
in some inexplicable form.) What is there, on the other side of
the end of the universe, is before time began.
Though in the universe itself, the stuff
we are made of constitutes only ten percent
of what is there. The rest is either void or
(again) inexplicable. As yet. Meaning,
I suppose, that here is now. I knew that.
It feels like life, the little bit you can grab onto.
At or Above the Earth’s Surface**
Saturday at dinner, as we spoon into dessert
(crème anglaise with raspberry sauce on one side
chocolate on the other), our friend, who is a physicist,
speaks to us of time as yet another human
fallacy. That it’s only through the usual egotism
of our species that we imagine its existence;
that looked at properly it may well have no beginning
or end to it. I probably don’t understand him fully,
despite my ignorant love for physics.
But I have experienced something like
the a-chronological, standing for brief seconds
not in time, absorbed in some moody
perception, shop window; caught in stasis, being –
how glad I am of the forsythia today, for instance,
how it keeps coming back and coming back –
if that’s what he means.
And I have felt the elasticity of time,
especially its slowness in those moments when
I was moving at or above the earth’s surface,
the news of someone’s death the event
that splits time into before and after.
As though in those moments in between
my grief for someone else left me
perhaps immortal, not part of time. I link this
with the desire I feel sometimes for death;
the wanting it all to stop, to stop, to step
outside of it all, outside of
everything the mind frets over busily,
all the questions that are for me anything
but philosophical. The questions I call
suffering; the question, I guess, of time,
of trailing the long long freight train
of our lives: the accumulated memories of this
bit of light striking that plane, smell
of decayed oak-leaves a resonance in the primitive
brain. All these things packed in electrical
circuits in the walnut our bony skulls
protect, synapses flickering like
the prettiest Christmas lights so that
if surgeons stimulate that bunch of cells
we taste our mother’s breast milk; this bunch
and it’s pale red tulips by the concrete steps
at Matheson Avenue. That the transparency we
imagine of ghosts is the transparency of memory.
A collision of times. And who can tell me why
it is that often when we make love I am among the arches
under the New Sacristy in Florence where
we went up, eighteen and nineteen years old,
to see for the first time
Michelangelo’s tomb for the Medicis? What
does lovemaking have to do with
Renaissance art? Or is it arches, is it
the caves down there, is it that
the trigger this moment is just death,
that I’m thinking of how, making love, we go
into it, the great current of procreation, time?
The Dinner Table, the Tulip**
So what do we do with this,
this world, this uncertain spring,
the tulips still holding, things green and cold.
Take the tulips, composed, driven to yellow or rose
from their chilly green, given to order,
unfolding. The colour they move towards
held for a day, or a week, contingent
on the weather, accident. Then paling or darkening
into other shades, then the quick
or slow decomposing. Coming to grief.
To being not tulips. Does rot
have its own order? I think not.
Theorists see things moving
to degeneration, some, and looking down,
I might be inclined to agree, skidding down
to an agreement since more than the weather
this spring is uncertain. Systems large
and small are flawed, disintegrating.
Think of anything: my respiratory system,
the world’s. Today I run along the cul-de-sac
in the swanky end of our neighbourhood.
As always, there are vans parked in the driveways.
Things are being taken care of, expensive systems
in need of maintenance. The rest of us
are short on money, time, love.
And you so careless, the roof needing repair,
plaster crumbling from the living-room ceiling,
faith battered, struck by dilemma. Ah you.
It’s a good thing it is spring, my faith still holding,
in me, this body running along concrete,
however the lungs rasp. Spring inclines me
elsewhere, to lean towards other theories –
anti-chaos, the universal yearning
towards order. Setting the table just so.
The tulips in the right vase.
Yearning, yes, the scientist on tv wanting
it to be the case that we are at home
in the universe, that life is inevitable,
“the consequence of broad avenues of possibility,
not back lanes of improbability.” Although,
agnostic, I might settle for back lanes.
I’ve loved their rough edges, seamy sides:
rusted garbage cans overturned, the
opportunity for scrounging, the
possibility of unexpected plenty.
A clump of fat white violets beside the garage
and beside them, blue ones, their pansy faces
attentive. Not an aberration but a plan.
Agnostic, I bless those looking
for “a science of emergence, of complexity,”
looking for a way to model complicated systems
like the dinner table, the tulip. And I
agree. The ultimate question not only
of science, but ours why is there
something rather than nothing.
* copyright © 1995, Rhea Tregebov. All Rughts Reserved. Reprinted from “Mapping the Chaos,” 1995, Signal Editions, Vehicule Press, Montreal.
** copyright © 2004, Rhea Tregebov. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted from “(alive): Selected and new poems,” 2004, Wolsak and Wynn, Toronto.