Faster Than Light

I didn’t want to pay to park my car,
so I took a taxi to the train station.
New London is an hour’s drive away,
but it was the best solution I could find.
After ten miles or so of idle chat
in which my occupation was confessed,
the driver said
he was a physicist—
As a hobby, he said: Driving was his trade.
Still struggling to connect my seat-belt clasp,
I asked his opinion of an article
I’d skimmed last weekend in the
New York Times,
about a man who researches time travel.

He made that pffft Parisian cabbies make
in early August, when Americans
try to
parlez avec them at rush hour.
He gave me a long over-the-shoulder glare,
squeezed the steering wheel, and hit the gas.
He said,
He’s wrong. The one thing that would work
 is to fly faster than the speed of light,
through a wormhole. The gravitational field
is full of holes: You only have to find
one and be pulled by metagravitational force.
For energy you could use compressed song…
(or words to that effect. My memory

isn’t what it was ten minutes ago.)
He drove with ten white knuckles on the wheel,
his pinched blue right eye looking back at me,
as we took the curves on two screaming tires.
Faster than light travel, that’s the secret.
The government’s been onto this for years.
There are other planets waiting to be explored.
This one’s almost used up; it’s time to move.
We won’t take people who don’t measure up,
our intellectual inferiors.
Let them inherit the earth; we’ll take the skies.
(I still couldn’t figure out the seat-belt catch.) 

The poor and ignorant population grows
 so quickly… What? Deny the right to life?
There’s a fuckin’ holocaust of the unborn!
But some races and cultures lack the gift
of scientific knowledge. It’s the dross
 of their stupidity which weighs us down
and holds us back. Faster than light travel!
Faster than light travel. The only way!
We hurtled down the turnpike, passing trucks
Faster than light! and cars full of people
driving hell-bent to get to work on time.
Faster than light travel, that’s the ticket!

Finally, we pulled up at the train station.
(I’d given up on fastening my seatbelt—
stupid contraption—trusting to
the universe to grant me more good luck.)
I scrambled out. We wished each other well.
(My tip was generous, if I do say so myself.)
Faster than light, he yelled, late for his next
pickup, zooming off, talking to his phone.
(My cup brimmed over with Psalm Twenty-Three.
Buoyancy’s sometimes stronger than gravity.)
I wheeled my luggage down the crowded train,
then found a seat and opened my magazine.

Some influence is affecting a space probe,
I read, which baffles scientists. It will
rewrite the laws of physics and astronomy
when scientists understand and name that force.
The plan was for Pioneer 10 to arrive
some million years from now, at some far place.
In case of alien contact, there’s a plaque
of a human couple, and a celestial map
showing Earth with a spear held to her head.
Thirty years beyond its launch, it’s past Pluto,
the farthest planet orbiting our sun,
in empty space 7 billion miles from Earth.

The article said current theories can’t explain
what’s causing the decrease in Pioneer’s speed.
It’s almost imperceptible, a mere
6 mph per century: But
Pioneer 10
is being pulled back to the sun. I closed my eyes.
Several million years from now. As if
a species on the brink of extinguishing itself
said to a future species,
Remember me?
The species which perfected genocide?
Will science ever discover humility?
Right, fool. You want to say en garde to science?
Why stop there? Why don’t you attack Knowledge,

while you’re at it? And how about Progress?
Ain’t that a bit ambitious, Miss William Blake?
What was that voice? Listen, Marilyn, listen:
as saints once listened (and, of course, the mad).
I looked around: The other passengers
were busy with laptops, breakfasts, books.
And where does it get off accusing me? Ambition?
Why, I’ve surpassed every fantasy I had.
Would I presume to bad-mouth our attempt
to cheat death? My poems: a handful of dust
trying to get back to supernova.
Like every longing, everything alive.

But ambition wants the immortality
of a members-only country club Valhalla,
an eternal summit meeting of great names.
Millions of lightyears into the future,
that immortality ambition breeds
with serendipity: what will it mean?
Our poetry, our books, our language: dust
of words, never again to be spoken.
I wonder what will last millions of years:
A stone? A nuclear waste disposal site?
Will Homo sapiens evolve, or die?
Will wiser beings populate our Earth?

We’re dying faster than the speed of light,
our fame forgettable. Will good deeds, too,
vanish, like molecules of exhaled breath,
to be recycled by the universe?
Girl, get on back to the raft. When you try to think
the breeze between your ears nearly blows me away.
My Muse again. So much for my magazine.
I closed its pages and began to drift.
As if you wasn’t drifting all along.
If you had the good sense God promised the carrot,
you’d know that what lasts is the hush of space:
the hiss of orbit, and the hum of stars.

If you could launch a space probe, I wondered,
would you take up my name engraved in gold?
My puny thoughts? My hopes for the future?
And, if I knew I’d be anonymous,
would I publish? Would I write poems at all?
(During the countdown of The Anonymous,
you’d be trying to scratch your initials on the hull.)
Well, Muse of Disposable Poetry,
at least I’m not producing toxic waste!
But poets who want immortality,
poets who are ambitious: Is it wrong
to want life after our deaths for our songs?

Leave immortality to cancer cells:
They don’t know when to stop. Just when they reach
the point of no return, the body dies,
and the cancer is returned to genesis.
Genes are programmed to reproduce and die;
and poetry, to stick on a synapse,
ucky to be a line remembered wrong.
Your work, projected into the future,
is pulled back to earth by dark energy,
the glue which binds the cosmos together…
From Stamford I no longer traveled alone;
my seatmate fast-talked into his cellphone.

“Faster Than Light” from Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems by Marilyn Nelson. Copyright © 2012 by Marilyn Nelson. Published by LSU Press. Used with permission of the poet.

This poem was originally read in the On Being episode “Poetry From the On Being Gathering.” Listen to Marilyn Nelson’s On Being interview, “Communal Pondering in a Noisy World.”