On Louise Glück's "Telescope"

Louise Glück

There is a moment after you move your eye away
when you forget where you are
because you've been living, it seems,
somewhere else, in the silence of the night sky.

You've stopped being here in the world.
You're in a different place,
a place where human life has no meaning.

You're not a creature in a body.
You exist as the stars exist,
participating in their stillness, their immensity.

Then you're in the world again.
At night, on a cold hill,
taking the telescope apart.

You realize afterward
not that the image is false
but the relation is false.

You see again how far away
each thing is from every other thing.
                   from Averno (FSG, 2006)                            

We know the sun is the center of our solar system, that Earth orbits it along with seven (or eight) other planets and assorted moons, but many of us typically regard our place in the sun this way:

Image from Arun Shanbhag

In fact, the relation between us and Out There is more like this. Earth is the speck mid-way down and to the right that looks like a dust mote your Screen-Kleener missed:
Image from NASA

This is a fact Louise Glück captures brilliantly in Telescope, a disarmingly direct poem told in  Glück's signature matter-of-fact voice. Here we are on a hillside at night, we're informed through the intimate "you," having just spent some time -- time we can't quite measure -- looking at the night sky through a telescope.

Moving our eye away from this technological extension, we are momentarily disoriented, lost in a wilderness of time and place, existing however briefly outside the usual measured constraints of time and place.

This internal wilderness is a match for the vast wilderness we've glimpsed through the telescope. But almost as soon as we recognize it, perhaps because we recognize it, the sensation vanishes; ordinary sequences are restored and we put away our telescope.

What's left from this telescoping of distance, though, like an imprint on the retina, is the insight that our usual understanding of our place in the world is false. In fact we are immeasurably small; the wilderness doesn't know us.

The poem invites a further telescoping, as we consider what it means to be so small: we won't be missed. Could this relative insignificance be one reason many people ignore or disregard our destructive impact on our planet? It's possible to find a certain comfort in such smallness, one that might enable us to be complacent in the face of the immense loss that is looking increasingly inevitable.

It would be an empty sort of comfort, though. If space is so vast we could colonize and destroy a hundred planets and nothing would really change, what do our lives and actions contain? What do we have, what do we hold, if we don't feel and mourn and try to prevent its loss?