It is the star to every wandering bark

As atoms time atomic clocks
And currents clock the seas,
The rhythm of the motor locks
Our own astronomies

Which otherwise would tear apart
The lap and slip of tide
With the arbitrary stop and start
Of the sky's celestial drive,

The tropic beat of fanning blades—
Guidebooks to the Stars—
Whose aimless spellbound drifting trades
Another world for ours:

Expect no vision from those starcrossed eyes,
Bewitched by every passing spark—
Blinded, every shudder multiplies,
And waves grow larger in the dark—

But the throbbing of the blood,
Like music of the spheres,
Steadies the arhythmic flood
Of our disastrous ideas,

Setting watches in the night
With heaven's second hand,
Trimming our theodolite
To bring the lightning back to land.

September 19th–21st, 2008


This poem suffered through a complex evolution of simplistic contrasts: a motorboat against a sail, the deep structures of wind and sea against the solipsistic, false strictures of an Evinrude, the pathetic fallacy of our small anchors against the vast chaotic patterns of oceans, so that we weave our erroneous way through deeper seas based on mistakes, false scents, and cheap compasses, while around us truth rages, as I myself wove my way through contradictory and mixed-up metaphors (while somewhere out of sight truth raged) to the final unifying noctilucence of Gegenschein, St. Elmo’s fire, that eerie form of lightning that flickers like fireflies around masts of ships in deep sea on becalmed nights.
My original idea was to suggest the otherworldly forces that design our ends despite ourselves, and in fact the ignis fatuus, the fateful fire, descended on me fitfully in just the random
way it descends on my floundering sailor, solving in the last few minutes the clueless puzzle I had set for myself in the mischievous way ice arranges trees into elusive but accurate carols of childhood, the way sleighs lost in snow conjure up a Cantor set of infinitely receding Christmases, like mirrors in a mirror, to mix metaphors until sleep overcomes me.
After I’d written the first few drafts of “Phosphor,” thinking of Prospero, I was also reminded of the irony in the line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 about love:

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

A decade later I felt the boat metaphor was too easy and overhauled the poem to cover as well a tour bus in Hollywood visiting homes of the stars, whose lightning guides our disastrous, our not exactly stellar course.
Phosphor notes: December 21st, 1998; April 17th, 1999
Star Bus note: Lanikai, September 20th, 2008