The Northern Lights, as Seen from Mars

by ELIZABETH LINDSEY ROGERS

after Wallace Stevens I. Sky is where the racer lives. Scales blurring from the speed of light, her tongue’s black fork is lost, dissolved by distance. But what we thought we’d driven to extinction now takes form again: a neon ouroboros above the struggling treeline. Our new ecology gulps and gulps for air, but dust has whorled itself into a pageant we hardly recognize. Night is full of quick changes, costumes tossed aside: blue sequins, yards of crinoline. Smoke. Some days, the fabric of space seems only arranged for our recognition. The word beauty holds like a magnet to my tongue, my mind a book of matches, waiting for the strike and spark. II. Even in the myth, the snake learns to bury her purse of eggs. In our human memory, still, those hills and impossible blue-green distances recall an old-world name, Virginia. It arrives as beads of sweat and sand between the teeth, and then the moaning floorboards of ships, sails’ cruel whipping. Whose father mapped these degrees, each dell and vale? As if water and not land, that terrain, ribbon by ribbon, was greedily siphoned away, all the while still breathing with its Indian names. Whether there were omens first, no one can know for sure. We picture, say, a mosquito swarm above the coastal plain like a misshapen constellation, its gloss increasing as it drops closer: a funnel, the terrible humming. III. The tornado, I read long ago, was indigenous to North America but what other world wasn’t born inside this swirling dust. But unlike the old stories of dust devils, our air is full of hooks and echoes. Its blindness turns and turns, a barber pole forever stripped of stripes. In Gale crater, a flock of green stones—dry ice pelting, a noise that holds both the explicative and mute— and then an even stranger air, dropping down its wick. IV. Farewell, farewell. The snake, sorry to say, has swallowed itself in hunger. The night is undone, exposing its violet bands, a whelk a tide has just turned over. Once, an ocean where we stand, water hushing this northern hemisphere. Thinking of humidity, the brain blooms with lost years, moving pictures: lily pads stirring under pink blossoms, the quiet drama of willow and oak. The lizard’s lost blue balance. Perhaps the first snake, his legs surrendered in streamlined devotion. A mile deep, that water too, would have seemed impossible to lose. Yet we are, billions later, almost not able to recall the old names: algae green, stormcloud violet. My grandmother’s mother once looked skyward, standing on an isle in the north of Scotland. Bell was her name. Like waves of any color, the sound of it breaks best in a medium of crisp, cold dark. V. Goodnight spade and pick. Goodnight helmet, bowl, tablecloth, child’s brush. Goodnight hunter and goat in the sky, blur and veil: not enough pixels to see the ruin’s full. Goodnight old Earth, that far blue meniscus. Hush. VI. Tonight, the arid landscape refuses any human touch. Below me, bristles of sagebrush stay hidden, their smell absorbed by air’s chill. If you touched me, also, I might ring and splinter, as when a foot falls on a pond’s shallow ice, my organs like koi, slow flashes beneath a winter surface. How anyone survives one dormant season and then another— carrying their bodies under the weightless winter sky— I cannot say. The scholar of solitude opens the ancient book (pressed flowers, crumbling leaves) just as—now! slid across his moonroof—an aurora pulses, making the breath catch inside his throat. VII. Consider the path that brought us here— a chain of narrow, unlit passages, sorrow hid beneath the decks of ships. Ancestors believed the sky’s discharge of light was the dead calling back to us, showing off their blubber pots or playing ball with a walrus-head. Oh the cruelties reserved for nights— war or wonder, the garish carousel has nothing left but color, each horse whirled out of air and plasma. There, our bodies tilt, tear away from seasons. In morning, we’ll find the hourglass gone to pieces, a red ash landscape filling in the blanks. Nothing can really be lost, some say— not a silver key in a field of snow, not a planet’s ancient field of magnets. Looking up, we see these remnants: ions that ache against this charge, a backdrop behind the unfixed world. Your mother as she sweeps across the sky, in shimmering robes.

ELIZABETH LINDSEY ROGERS is the author of Chord Box (University of Arkansas Press, 2013), finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Miller Williams Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Boston Review, The Missouri Review, FIELD, Washington Square, and many others; her creative nonfiction can be found in The Missouri Review, The Rumpus, and The Journal. She received the 2012-2014 Kenyon Review Fellowship, and is currently the Murphy Visiting Fellow of Literature and Language at Hendrix College. A North Carolina native, she now divides her time between Arkansas and Washington, D.C.