Pushcart XLIII: Rick Barot, “UDFj-39546284” (poem) from Arroyo Literary Review #9

For context, today I learned that the farthest galaxy
we know of, located by scientists in 2011
is 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away.
It goes by the name of UDFj-39546284
for reasons that I haven’t yet looked up.
In the photograph you can see online, the galaxy looks
like dusty stuff in the corner of a window pane,
something you could look at sometimes,
something that is nothing, and has nothing
to do with what you know about distance and time.

If this poem were available online, I’d start at the beginning, but it isn’t, so I’ve presented, as an opening, the end, which is the titled example of the point of it all: what we “see” – that is, how we interpret the sensory signals we receive and turn them into opinions, facts, beliefs – depends on a whole lot of things, including a) what we expect to see; b) what we’ve seen before; c) what we want to see; d) what aspects of the scene we’ve been told are important; etc etc. It’s the poetic version of the intersection of the neuroscience of perception and philosophy, my favorite place.

The poem starts off with bunraku, a Japanese form of puppetry in which the puppeteers, two or three per puppet, are in full view of the audience, holding the puppets and coordinating movements. I was lucky to see a bunraku performance of Hansel and Gretel at my local library a few years ago, and I agree with the speaker of the poem: at first, you watch the puppeteers, but then you get used to them, and you start watching the puppets and get caught up in the action of the play. This is “The seeing and non-seeing that makes humans / humans”, as the poem puts it. Or, as comes later, foreground, background, context.

…. I’m thinking now of the placid
English estates where the servants had to face the wall
whenever anyone of importance was near,
where workers had to cut the lawns with scissors
in candlelight, to save the master the trouble
of seeing and hearing all that effort.
What the mind does with this kind of information
is probably the knot within the post-
in what we call post-modernism, knowing all we know
now about the cruelty that made modernism

Do we see the beautiful lawn, or the servants whose crippled backs and hands made it that way? Are their images as disposable as their lives? Whose lives are we not seeing right now?

I like the commentary on modernism, when we knew everything as objective truth, vs post-modernism, when subjectivity took center stage and we realized things look different depending on where you’re standing. Don’t talk to me about post-post-modernism, I’m not ready yet.

The speaker gives other examples of this process of foregrounding/backgrounding – painters who were hired to paint background, while named artists who signed the paintings did the figures in the foreground; his grandmother’s hands in an old photo – until we get to the galaxy UDFj-39546284. I did spend some time looking for the naming conventions that would generate such an appellation, but the best I could do was to discover UDF means “ultra-deep field” on the Hubble telescope. The other characters might signify a particular image taken by the ‘scope, and a particular grid on that image, some kind of location parameter, but I don’t really know.

A couple of things about the peculiarly-named galaxy that aren’t necessarily clear from the description of “the oldest galaxy”. First, because of the expansion of the universe, farthest means it is the oldest galaxy, the one formed first of all the galaxies we know (and it is, it seems, a proto-galaxy rather than a formed galaxy), though of course there may be others we just haven’t seen yet. Its light has been travelling for something like 13 billion years to reach Hubble. And, the most interesting point: it no longer exists. I’m not sure how that is known – maybe it’s due to the age, galaxies have life spans too, and our own will someday die – but what we see was there, but now is not.

This is a poem, and, as I often do, I wonder why this is a poem, not an essay. There’s no meter I can discern, certainly no rhyme, yet it’s arranged in pairs of lines (TIL they can’t be called couplets unless they have the same meter). Why pairs? Does this suggest a duo, such as what we see and what we perceive? Or what is foreground and what is background? Or is it more of a process, a one-two step, almost a march? Or was it just what the poet was in the mood for? Is what we are seeing – an image of a thought, an emotion – something that was there, but now is not?

These are the background questions the poem raises for me. And, because the poem has sensitized me to these issues, I wonder why I choose to foreground my interpretation of content, and background form. There might well be another way to see it, and seeing it that way, like walking around a building to get a better sense of its structure, might increase – or change entirely – the impact.

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