Poem of the Week | May 06, 2019

This week, we are delighted to present “Cassini” a new poem by Joanne Diaz.

Joanne Diaz is the recipient of fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She is the author of My Favorite Tyrants (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014) and The Lessons (Silverfish Review Press, 2011), and with Ian Morris, she is the co-editor of The Little Magazine in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press, 2015). She is an Associate Professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University.


Yesterday, I watched a Florentine
create paper with the mineral spirits
of acrylic paint, water, and glue.

He opened a shallow tank
for liquids to congeal,
gently tapped each paint

into the gel, swirled the end
of a thin paintbrush up and down
and across the tank, then lowered

a plain piece of paper
into the bath. What rose
was a metamorphosis: dozens

of peacocks radiating up and down
the page, so vibrant, so close,
that in those plumes I thought I heard

the prehistoric brays of dinosaurs
traveling through time. How magnificent
to watch a technique we no longer need,

to have a foreknowledge of our paper lives.
Photography can do this, too:
this year, in its grand finale, Cassini,

the magnificent space probe
that has dipped and danced
around and through the rings

of Saturn for thirteen years
will dive twenty-two times
through gas and ice to reveal

a system that is not cold and dark
but full of stunning energy:
water spewing in plumes

from the edge of a perforated moon;
endless, Sahara-like dunes
that span what could be continents;

and channels of liquid methane sludge
that feather in every direction.
In one, a pin-prick of light

glows next to Saturn, a dot so small
that one might mistake it
for a speck of dust on an otherwise

perfect composite photograph:
Earth, where all our woes and strife
are contained, pure pearl,

blemish-free. The photo does not show
the edges of our nation as it is eaten
by the president like a giant,

well-done steak; or the police
who have been exonerated
for every crime against brown bodies;

or the fish depleted from the hungry shores
of China and Africa; or the thousands
who have drowned, without papers,

in those fishless waters as they flee
from the tyrannies of home.
Cassini has no use for that. It only

follows what it loves—namely,
Enceladus, the brightest object
in the solar system. Beneath

its veneer of fresh ice, liquid methane
swells and stirs as water might have
on planet Earth, before time began,

before radiance, dynamism, smallness,
and catastrophe, with a vision of what
we might have been before there was a we.


Author’s Note

In truth, my young son provides the inspiration for this poem. Two years ago, when he was four years old, he was obsessed with the planets, and he became particularly interested in Cassini, the space probe described here. Our family was transfixed by the poetic quality of the probe’s journey through space and the beauty of the photographs that it transmitted back to Earth. The way that astronomers described the probe was so…I don’t know what—maybe affectionate?—that it seemed like Cassini had acquired qualities of personhood in its years-long journey. When I wrote this poem in 2017, I was feeling entirely hopeless, and a lot of my poems from that moment reflected that. When a friend challenged me to write a poem of hope, this was the result. To write it, I drew from a visit to a papermaking shop in Florence, the sound of peacocks in a public square in Prague, and of course, all of the beautiful photographs that shuttled through the solar system so that we could enjoy them.