Poetry and Black Holes

We welcome back Jonathan Taylor as a guest blogger. Jonathan is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, UK, along with an author and critic. He has written several poems for us in the past: “Black Hole in B-flat”, “History Lesson” and “!!**&@??”. He has also organized poetry competitions among his students, in blog posts here, here, here, here and here.

I was fascinated by Chandra’s press release of 27 June 2016, ‘Clandestine Black Hole May Represent New Population.’ The very title of the press release sounds ‘poetic,’ in the idea of ‘Clandestine’ – a concealed or secretive – Black Hole; and the findings described in the press release are even more so: having concluded that “a peculiar source of radio waves thought to be a distant galaxy is actually a nearby binary star system containing a low-mass star and a black hole,” astronomers have suggested that “there may be a vast number of black holes in our Galaxy that have gone unnoticed until now .... Because this study only covered a very small patch of sky, the implication is that there should be many of these quiet black holes around the Milky Way. The estimates are that tens of thousands to millions of these black holes could exist within our Galaxy, about three to thousands of times as many as previous studies have suggested.”

Clearly, astronomy often underlines human beings’ relative insignificance by comparison with the unimaginable vastness of the universe surrounding us; but here, it would seem that such unimaginable vastness is possibly populated by huge numbers of black holes: already insignificant in relation to material space, human beings are apparently also surrounded (‘hemmed in’) by images of ‘nothingness’ and ‘death,’ as it were – of black holes, dark matter, and so on. This at once insignificant and claustrophobic sense of our place in the universe reminded me, strangely enough, of Tennyson’s famous poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854), in which the troops are heavily outnumbered, and surrounded by death and destruction on all sides; so I alluded to some of the famous lines from that poem to help provide a context in which these new astronomical findings might be placed and understood. I used familiar language, that is, to try and understand new and disorientating knowledge. I think what both astronomy and poetry often have in common is precisely this deployment of familiar language and imagery in new contexts: astronomy and poetry both represent ways of understanding a bizarre universe by translating it into language and images which are at once recognizable and strange.

Hemmed in

    After Tennyson and NASA-Chandra

      ... The estimates are that tens of thousands to millions of these black holes could exist within our galaxy,

      about three to thousands of times as many as previous studies have suggested...

– NASA-Chandra, 27 June 2016, ‘Clandestine Black Hole’

We are hemmed in by nothingness,
black holes to the left of us,
dark matter to the right of us,
a cosmic valley of death,
a galaxy of tombstones.

Telescopes decipher inscriptions
carved black on black:
like Ebeneezer gazing at his future
we find our own names there.

We are hemmed in by nothingness,
dark matter to the left of us,
black holes to the right of us,
a quiet cemetery of stars

where nebulae grow like yew trees,
solar systems like lichen.

- Jonathan Taylor

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