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Today, I present you with an extraordinary poem from an extraordinary person. Please read the poem first.
ANTIDOTES TO FEAR OF DEATH
by Rebecca Elson
Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.
Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.
Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:
No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
But unconstrained by form.
And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:
To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.
The true beauty and strength of poem is understood when we know who wrote it and under what circumstances it was written.
Rebecca Anne Wood Elson (2 January 1960 – 19 May 1999) was a Canadian–American astronomer and writer.
Rebecca Elson was diagnosed in 1989 with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, at the age of 29. She was treated and the disease went into remission but returned again in 1996. She succumbed to disease in 1999. May her soul rest in peace.
Rebecca was an extraordinary person by any standard. The poem above is a reflection of her strength and resolve in the face of eventuality. Rebecca does admit the presence of inevitable, but her soul rises to negotiate with it.
Being an astronomer, she talks about stars and her close affiliation with them. She also imagines the time when the universe was still in the making and her being part of it then. Then she returns to earth and now and here. And she ends with the expectation of flying on bright wings.
What particularly strikes me is that even in the enormousness of universe she shows neither nothingness nor helplessness. In the end, she hopes to go back to from where she came, the universe.
Some more details about Rebecca Elson.
She was born in Montreal, Quebec. In early teen years, she traveled with her geologist father through Canada. She initially chose biology as subject but later switched to Astronomy. She did her master’s degree from University of British Columbia and then attended Cambridge University where she received Isaac Newton Studentship Award and completed PhD in Astronomy. In the early 1990s she returned to Cambridge on a research position and worked there till the end.
Rebecca Elson was actively involved with research and left behind 52 research papers in a short span of time.
How do we measure life? Is it by the number of years? or by the amount of contribution? To me contribution is more significant than the mere length of life. Longevity is of no consequence if it is spent not doing much.
Another common observation is about people who depart from this world rather early. I know some, and many of us had been in close interaction with a person who left us early, and we recall and realize they were above the ordinary. Some such people do a lot of work in a short time as if they know they have limited time and they are on a mission to complete the agenda before leaving.
This post is not intended as a signal of gloom; quite the contrary in fact.
I have always been an ardent admirer of creative people in all genres. I draw a lot of energy from many things; literature, poetry, and music in particular and in that order. Most of the creative geniuses, from the start of twentieth century, leaned towards left, which was communism, led by the Soviet Union. The fight between the Right and Left was intense. The Right held up for status quo and conservativeness; the Left stood for disruption and new socio-economic order. Slogans of Left were very attractive and were echoed by the big names. Sarmad, Majaaz, Saahir, Faiz, Faraz, Akhtar ul Iman. Abdullah Hussain, Ismat Chughtai, Minto and Quratul Ain Haider also challenged centuries old assumptions and became agents of disruption. I discovered Akhtar ul Iman rather accidentally in 1973 and fell in love with his poetry instantly. He was direct and scathing in his grilling of the old guard. Someday, I would love to share some piece of his poetry with you.
Meanwhile, take an astronomers’ poem from Rebecca Elson.
We astronomers are nomads,
Merchants, circus people,
All the earth our tent.
We are industrious.
We breed enthusiasms,
Honour our responsibility to awe.
But the universe has moved a long way off.
Sometimes, I confess,
Starlight seems too sharp,
And like the moon
I bend my face to the ground,
To the small patch where each foot falls,
Before it falls,
And I forget to ask questions,
And only count things.