Pushcart 2014: Sarah Lindsay, “Origin” (Poetry) from Poetry Northwest, Spring/Summer 2012

The first cell felt no call to divide.
Fed on abundant salts and sun,
still thin, it simply spread,
rocking on water, clinging to stone,
a film of obliging strength.

At first I thought this was another “miracle of life” poem, and I suppose it is, but in a very different way. It holds up a mirror, then, just as we’re admiring our reflections, adjusts the angle to a less flattering, but more truthful, view. The complete poem is available online; I highly recommend reading it for yourself first (it’s short) as this will contain “spoilers” if there is such a thing as spoilers for poetry. I’ll come back to this later.

It leaves open the question: where did the second cell come from? I see a whole novel in that: a second cell – our ancestor, unrelated to the first – became the predator that eliminated the first cell. And that’s our DNA, not the gentle living-for-the-joy-of-being of the first, now disappeared cell. Then again, the second cell consumed the first cell, so perhaps it, too, is part of us all.

I’ve been concerned for a long time about the overemphasis on “growth” as a metric of success. For example, the economy must grow in order to be considered healthy. A population in decline is considered troubled. At some level, the system is closed, so it’s a zero-sum game: growth in one parameter necessarily means a decline in another, but some parameters are more highly valued. By the way, someone tell me when the Era of the Job Creator is over, so the Job Doers can get enough respect to come out and play again instead of being treated like drains on the corporate coffers. But I’m getting way beyond my level of comprehension; it’s just a suspicion that the people doing the measuring are measuring what benefits them, not what matters in the long run. The second cell will always consume the first cell, and so far, it doesn’t seem to be mellowed by that consumption process.

Then again, if that first cell had just continued to sit and bask in the protoatmosphere – if another cell hadn’t woke up one day and decided, wow, I bet if I eat that guy over there, I’ll get stronger – we wouldn’t be here to contemplate anything. And consider this: the above image looks plenty aggressive, but it’s the body’s natural immune system attacking a cancer cell.

About that spoiler thing: I’m undecided as yet about whether the last line is a “trick ending” or not. It certainly changes the poem, and gives it that “whoa!” moment, without which it’d just be nice words. But I wonder if it isn’t maybe such a good cheap trick as to get a pass; a twist that earns its keep. Then again, I’m a fan of cheap tricks, especially tricks that so effectively change the polarity.

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