Poem of the Week | September 02, 2019

This week’s Poem of the Week is “The Seven Spheres” by David Keplinger!

David Keplinger is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Another City (Milkweed Editions, 2018), which won the UNT Rilke Prize. For past work he has been awarded the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Colorado Book Award, the Cavafy Prize from Poetry International, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and other honors. He teaches in the MFA Program at American University in Washington, D.C.


The Seven Spheres

1. The Sun
I would express my gratitude for helping me to grow up, to be given
the chance to grow old,
like one of the uncles said on his 90th birthday,
half his own size, a person who’d been crushed by light. I thought,
for what, what good will come of this? Whatever burns by its own
light will do the next right thing. Be grateful for the chance, he’d tell
me now. Don’t waste your time grieving for the pliable knee, the blue
stalk of the heart, the sudden, wide-awake brain, which frets its way
forward by thinking backward.


2. The Moon
I came here for a body and will not leave until I get one, I told the
old clerk of the Moon. He tapped his foot impatiently, but like
Bartleby was not giving in. It was cold and I was shivering, less than
naked without my body. I had been promised a body and had waited
as long as I could. As is typical in these kinds of exchanges, the clerk
pushed up his tiny glasses, and I began to beg. I had nothing to barter
but my pitiful, perfect lack. Have mercy on me, I pleaded. It was only
then he sighed, as he slid the first fingernail, as small as a doge’s gold
ducat, across the desk.


3. Mercury
Whatever comes to life must learn to be fast. Whatever approaches
death must learn to be slow. Whatever grows and goes forward is a
student of the fast. Whatever stays in stillness is the student of the
slow. On Mercury you have to go to school for that. There are classes
hugely popular, taught by roaches, as well as courses few attend,
taught by stones. When I finally jumped on that planet and held on
for dear life, spinning with my legs draped off the edge, a stone
advised me to fall far behind, drop out, be quiet, and try not to
succeed. Always it’s the stone to show you freedom, like Mercury,
unalterable and dense, but faster than anything.


4. Venus
If I had really been to Venus and the gasses were fine, not too hot
and not too cold, I suppose it would really have been love, and I’d
still be there, walking among the low mountains, playing the banjo
for you. You loved how I played the banjo for you, though you
couldn’t see me playing through all the smoke, and I couldn’t see you
loving it, and in reality, I’m not really sure if that was Venus after all,
but a poorly reconstructed memory from Hawaii. We have covered
our faces with effervescent mud, we are walking on volcanic ash, and
every time I turn to kiss you, I’ve suddenly pressed my lips against a
mirror in my hands, the glass steamed over.


5. Mars
It was a world of pure ire, red ore, and despite all the hype the only
intelligence on Mars were little microbes that swam like swinging
maces. I had to go against my will, and I’m still angry: I resented the
trip, the cost of it, the cold flight, the hard landing. I kept thinking I
should leave, make my escape and go home, where I could look up at
it again, with some distance now, twinkling, even spiritual. But I was
told I had to stay, and I was handed a shield and a uniform, and part
of me, like part of you, like anything as long as it lives, did stay.


6. Jupiter
Oh please can we go back to Jupiter, I begged them from the back of
the car, but they’d stopped listening to me and trying to appease me,
or trick me by making a game out of being silent a long time. Along
that road far from home we had to move along, and I saw Jupiter
getting smaller behind us until that unfathomable kingdom was
nothing but a sphere the size of the moon in the rear view. My
mother was twirling her hair and tuning the radio, but nothing was
on. Where in the world are we going, she said to my father, the blue
light of Jupiter now fading on her barely remembered face.


7. Saturn
Saturn is the most beautiful place, but its rings are composed of
shards of what will happen. One of the shards is my lovely young
face, oozing with collagen. One of the shards is the book about the
bear whose mother is waiting for him on the moon. One of the
shards is the grip of a whole fist on my finger. One of the shards is
my fist, gripping a finger. One of the shards is hair, black hair. One
of the shards is a theatrical bow, with the bounce of the healthy
nucleus pulposis. One of the shards is a painting of the St Severn
cathedral, which we two loved. One of the shards is the ice of the
morphine. One of the shards is the Keats read out loud, in front of
the death mask, in Rome. One of the shards is the Keats read out
loud, in front of the life mask, in Hampstead. One of the shards is a
name. In fact, there are many names, which can’t be spoken but only
shine, for nothing but to shine, following with ease the natural law.

Author’s Note

I read somewhere years ago that in medieval conceptions of the soul, there existed an idea that the body had to pass through the seven celestial spheres before arriving on earth in full form, integrating (as it hardened into a palpable, concretized whole) aspects of each heavenly body, from the sun and moon, through Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These spheres were said to play a heavenly music to which the body itself is attuned, and their metals and “personalities” were literally cooked in us in the process of going from an invisible non-being into being and being seen. Whether I invented this or whether it is a conglomeration of ideas I hand-picked from woozy, late night readings of Augustine, the Scholastics, Rumi, the medieval Christian mystics, Kepler, Tycho de Brahe, and others, I am not able to say. I’m comforted to some extent by the idea that parts of our selves are non-negotiable, or in other words, that these parts of the self cannot be helped—against the oceans of self-help that seem to insist the reverse—and should be honored for what they are. As the speaker passes through Saturn, at the end of the series, this notion of ineluctability, the fact of what will happen, comes out strongest. Even the things we don’t know about ourselves, which will never have a name, “only shine.”