|Jul/Aug 2016 Poetry
Photographic Artwork by Victoria Mlady
We Watched for Falling Stars
It was the summer skies that brought us together—
three cousins driving out of a North Dakota town
until the right dirt road crested some farmer's hill.
We parked in the center of the road, stepped out
under a sky so black we'd almost gasp at the reckoning,
a third eye, deeper than water. The green broth
of alfalfa hushed without light, the sweet clover
and mustard—aromas that awakened the plains
lizard in my brain. I could feel him lift his head
and twitch his tail while I lay on the hood of Rod's car,
Charlie a horse length away at the edge of a field.
Springsteen wailed from the stereo like a prophet:
it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.
We could never see enough of that sky.
The truth for us those nights we watched
for shooting stars was everything bright
and shiny streaking past our eyes. Truth
was the space between our words that grew
long tails of silence as we gaped at the sky.
The same cool breeze blew back our hair.
In the cities that grew far from there,
the Milky Way fell like asphalt into the lighted sea
of street lamps and headlights. But on that prairie,
the stars were brighter than our lives.
We needed to be humbled like that once in a while.
It wouldn't have mattered then to know
one of us would shoot away one day
like the stars falling above, burning
into a long ray of light that sparks and dies.
We wouldn't have believed it.
We lit cigarettes, tapped the smoke out of our mouths
in rings to circle a star's trail. Smoke rising
like incense to the sky.
Hydrogen Has the Shortest Half-Life
Ninety percent of all atoms in the universe are hydrogen.
This atom has only two parts—a single electron orbits
a lone proton in the center. On snowy days, my brother Chuck
and I played marbles in the living room. We lined marbles
in rows to encircle our forts, took turns aiming a large shooter
at the other's tidy lines of two-tones and cat's eyes. Keepsies
meant any marble our shooter touched was ours. Sometimes
the toys we played with were words—a million quadrillion
patrillion vazillion—a contest to see who could create
the biggest sum. Take a photo of hydrogen with an atomic
microscope and you'll see a pair of joined cells. Or send
a spaceprobe up to capture hydrogen clusters
of gassy clouds sparkling supernova blue and magenta
against the black galaxy sky. Who knew hydrogen fills
the dark heavens with light? In fifth grade, my brother
got his first chemistry set. For hours I watched him
tinker with test tubes and beakers and pour one clear liquid
into another, transforming it the same color as the magenta
petunias our mother's best friend Marge grew all around
their back yard. The hydrogen 7 isotope has a half-life
of 21 yoctoseconds, which equals a trillionth of a trillionth of a second,
which equals a septillionth of a second. Who makes up these words?
I thought he was powerful because he controlled the elements.
Water passed through his hands and turned into jewels. Later
he set up slides under his new microscope of smelly pond water
we stored for weeks in jars. My brother showed me the world
teems with life we can't see with just eyes. In 1766, Henry Cavendish
declared this inflammable air from metals is an element,
observed how it made water when it burned. Who knew a certain
kind of fire could put itself out? In 1806, Humphry Davy drove
electricity through water and found it can pull atoms apart.
The true nature of bonding is that a bond can be broken
in half. In high school, Chuck became the geek who
traded his coin and stamp collections for science
workbooks and flashcards until he could name all the facts
on the Periodic Chart like he once rattled off the '68
Green Bay Packers and their stats. Hydrogen is the only atom
for which the Schrodinger Equation has a perfect solution.
It takes a big brain to track that kind of subatomic
behavior with math. On my 29th birthday, he surprised me
with a bound dot-matrix printout of Charlie's Favorite Poems, Vol. 1.
He told me when he was on break from doing his research
in the lab, he'd slip across campus to the library to read
poems and save the ones he liked best. Hydrogen
is the lightest element. It can lift objects and people
into the air, which has produced some disastrous results.
It's wildly flammable and makes the kind of jet-fuel
that thrusts mega-ton rockets into space. The next year, he was
working on Vol. 2 when he slipped away, the lightest element
in our family, the scientist who was given a half-life to live.