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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 426 Response

“Armchair Observatory”

with Oonah V. Joslin

Armchair Observatory, Dec. 11, 2010” appears in issue 426.

  1. What does “potential” refer to: the meteorite or the implied subject of “look up”?
  2. Does the line break in “the dust of / man,” which follows immediately the unbroken “the dust of Earth,” add anything to the meaning?
  3. Bewildering Stories normally does not accept inspirational literature; other websites specialize in it. Why might we make an exception in this case?



Lift your mind out of the dust of Earth
lift your mind out of the dust of
man and see

“Potential” on its own on that line takes on the full diversity of its meaning so that it is as embryonic as the stars, as capacious as the universe and yet that green streak of light and that moment of looking are very intimate as if speaking to the viewer.

Each moment in time and each view point is individual and to that extent I think there is the potential for communication both ways. The universe speaks to us and we to it. We are inextricably linked. In this case there was potential for a poem.

[Don W.] The meaning of “potential” is not at issue, Oonah; we’re all more or less agreed on it. Rather, the question makes a point of grammar: if “potential” is an adjective, what does it modify? If “potential” is a noun, what does it refer to?

Let’s put the word back into its context:

But Oh
that impertinent pointer
streaks the sky

look up, look up,
look at me

Does “potential” modify “me” or the implied subject of the imperative, namely “you”?

The question does not suggest that the ambiguity is a fault; on the contrary, I think it’s a happy one: the meteor and the observer both have potentiality, each in its own way.

[Oonah] “Lift your mind out of the dust of” is repeated exactly and therefore the line break takes on great significance. It is there to emphasise “man” and the fact that man is dust so that the dust in the last two lines becomes man. Dust becomes man and man becomes dust. What makes sense of it all is potential — he potential to write a poem and to understand and simply to observe the universe.

[Don W.] The question asks whether the line break adds anything. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. Readers may think you’d been afflicted with hiccups. But I doubt you were. Rather, I think it’s a visual elbow-nudge, a mild form of “doing the reading for the reader.”

[Oonah] That is, I suppose, inspirational; but I think it speaks to the intellectual — it’s not just schmaltz. You have to think about it. Also the fact that this is part of a series gives it a place amongst the other Armchair Observations and they are not all inspirational poems — or are they?

But the fact that they come from the NASA pictures of the day as displayed in BwS makes this their right place to be. What other magazine would link them to their original, inspiring photographs?

[Don W.] Anything can be “inspirational” in the sense that it elicits an emotional reaction in a writer or reader. And the “inspiration” may be cautionary rather than uplifting. For example, Antonio Bellomi’s “The Heretic,” in issue 427, inspires — or ought to inspire — horror, among other things. Likewise, Bill Bowler’s set of poems “The Bee Among the Blossoms” (loc. cit.) may evoke a set of emotions, not all of which will be warm and fuzzy.

Occasionally we receive poetry or prose with exclamations like “But Oh.” That triggers my schmaltz alert. And I humorously visualize an astronomical observatory lined with Victorian wallpaper.

Why disregard the exclamation, then? The poem successfully makes an extended image of “dust” as the origin of life. And the series Armchair Observatory qualifies as nature writing, which we welcome.

Finally, thank you for complimenting Bewildering Stories on linking to the NASA photos. I think it’s the least anyone can do. I would have preferred to put the photo and the poem on the same page, but we can’t, for three main reasons:

  1. The page would be entirely too large.
  2. Either the photo would crowd out the poem or the photo would be too small.
  3. The photo is explicitly copyrighted to an individual; it’s not NASA stock. I regularly borrow cover illustrations for our book reviews, but I’m reluctant to lift photos — let alone text — from other websites without permission.

Keep up the good work, Oonah! But be prepared to be read — with all the gratification and aggravation that implies.

Copyright © 2011 by Oonah V. Joslin
and Bewildering Stories

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