How to measure distance: a poem by Charlotte Pence

Guernica’s e-newsletter led me to a lovely poem by Charlotte Pence (daughter of Spike, not Mike), which led me to her website, which led me to this sparkling nugget, such a perfect thing to discover right after posting my review of In the Distance, Hernan Diaz’s book!

How to measure distance*
a poem by Charlotte Pence

I. Only Use Light Years When Talking to the General Public

or to squirrels testing spring between two
branches. Or to a new mother saddened
by thoughts of earth and its death; sun’s death;
her death. She watches her husband leave
the room for a burp cloth, wonders, could she
do it without him? What’s the measurement
of distance between two people growing
too close, too quickly?

II. The Measures We Use Depend on What We Are Measuring

Distance between parents? Hills? Rogue comets?
Within our solar system, distance is
measured in Astronomical Units.
Or “A.U.,” an abbreviation that
sounds similar to the “ow” of a toe
stub. Or similar to the sound of a mother
teaching the beginning of all sound. “Ah,
eh, ee, oo, uu.” Watch her mouth widen,
purr, and close. This is the measurement
for what we call breath.

III. For Most Everything Else—Stars, Galaxies, Etc…. —the Distance Unit Is the Parsec (pc). This Is a Convenient Unit

for gathering groceries, grains in silos,
gasses we cannot package and discount.

This is convenient, too, when measuring
stars’ distances by triangulation.
1 pc = 3.26 light years =
about the distance to the nearest star.

An equal sign leading to an “about.”

An estimate. A close enough.
Close enough feels safer than being wrong.
Or exact. “Close enough,” we say of that
asteroid skimming past our atmosphere’s skin.
“Close enough,” we say when he returns
with a guest towel.

IV. For Distances Within our Galaxy or Other Galaxies, It Is Kiloparsecs
She is unsure what fatherhood will do
to him. Accurate measurements require
one to know where one stands, where one belongs,
where one imagines going. Rub the toe
of the blue shoe into the dust. See how
the dust is not a bit bluer. The shoe,
a bit browner. Distance = a thing
between and against.

V. The Exception to These Units Is When One is Studying a Smaller Object

Father to mother to early zygote.
Branch to squirrel to tail-twitch and release.
Knee to toe to spring mud too soft to flake.
No units for these.

VI. One Might Say, “Its Radius Is 5 Solar Radii”, Meaning It Is 5 Times the Size of our Sun

Her fear is five times the size of sun, five
times the hours of sleep or lack thereof.
Five times the huddle of father, mother,
child. Five times the energy created
for one nap as opposed to the distance
of that nap, that leap.

VII. She Wants Answers
but is realizing that won’t happen.

She fears the truth that nothing stays the same.
Rashes fade, yet skin will prickle again.
Cries will quiet, yet the quiet will cry.
The man will leave, yet the same man will leave
again. That’s why eyes are bloodshot, why she
answers questions as if she doesn’t care.
All answers are “almost” or “about”—
everything moving. And this thing called light
years is a distance she can’t comprehend,
yet somewhere she squirms at one forever-
changing end of it.

*Note: Italics indicate lines are from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center website written by Jonathan Keohane.

I can’t help but draw other connections. “Au” is also:

Source of the poem: Charlotte’s website, accessed 4 January 2018, and I think the heading “Uncollected Poems” means it hasn’t been published anywhere else?

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