The Year of the Comet


George Bradley

Appearing like a "blowtorch in the sky,"
It lit the night, and thus the naked eye
At that time had no trouble in discerning
What seemed for all the world to be a burning
Bit of heaven, a rending of the veil
Of the firmament, though in fact the tail,
Composed of meteoric dust and gas,
Held little to combust, so that it was
Merely one more reflection of sunlight
Arriving out of darkness to ignite
Quick imaginations of idle men,
Seventy-six years past, in 1910.
For some, the comet heralded an age
Of science, in which mankind would engage
Ultimate questions and prevail, in which
Technical advances would enrich
Our lives and a benighted populace,
As seeing means belief, rise to embrace
The light of reason lately come in view;
For others, as belief is seeing, too,
The visitation meant apocalypse,
Wherein the comet's orbital ellipse
Had brought it back on an appointed round
To signal that the earth would soon be drowned
In blood, the seals be broken, the sky catch
Fire, that helpless sinners would soon watch
A hapless world destroyed and kingdom come,
For if the biblical millenium
Was winding down, then judgment day was due.
Well, we were ripe for change, that much was true,
And both persuations, in a sense, have been
Vindicated, as modern medicine
Works new miracles to extend our years,
While modern warfare brings this vale of seers
To the point of prophecies that have gone
Before the wildest visions of St. John;
Yet aren't they both evasions of the present,
Utopia and doom, predictions pleasant
Or otherwise, but easy answers to
The daily mix-ups we must muddle through?
So men still mire in misery every day,
While earth still spins along its merry way,
Through days of bliss and seasons of distress
And eons of redundant emptiness.
The brightest memories occasioned by
Such hours pass in the twinkling of an I,
And once again the average life transpires
Amidst the sort of era that acquires
Historians but leaves the bard non-plussed,
Three quarters of a century that must
Like every other in its time, appear
to its inhabitants as the nadir
Of human kindness and the height of sense;
Meanwhile, a dirty "snowball" circumvents
An end in space, accelerating through
Our solar system toward its rendevous
With sunshine, with the spectacles of men,
And Halley's comet has come back again.
I went out to look for it late last night;
You would have laughted to see me, for in light
Of nearby towns and in my ignorance
Of stars, I didn't stand a snowball's chance
In Dante's hottest hell, where lost souls sigh
Because they cannot see the nighttime sky.
Oh, I may have seen something, I suppose,
An unimpressive squib of light that rose
In the southwest with Pegasus and might,
If it wasn't a plane, or satellite,
Or weather baloon, or simply a spot
On my binoculars, as like as not
Have been a comet; that's the tale I plan
To tell the children of an aged man,
At any rate, how once, blazoned above,
Me, I beheld the very sign that wove
Its way into the Bayeaux tapestry
When, waiting on the tide of history,
Norman troops stood by the channel, how I
Witnessed the same sight seen by the Magi.
As Giotto pictured them in 1301,
Making their augured journey to the Son,
How light observed in Aristotle's time,
And subsequently hailed as the sublime
In the Philosopher's philosophy,
Has showered down its countenance on me,
Who have, I think, as much right as these
To light streaming like "long hair in the breeze,"
As the phrase goes whence "comet" is derived.
But truth to tell, what notions had survived
In me to the grave age of thirty-three
Of some grand cosmic continuity
Stretching across generations of men
And offering a type of order when
Life here on earth is at its most confused
Died in thirty seconds, and disabused
Of superstition, I went back inside
To soothe chagrin with thoughts that I had tried
To see it, that the world had grown too old
For auguries, and that my toes were cold.
Indoors, warming myself in the bright glow
And cold comfort cast by a picture show,
I switched the channel to the late-night news,
Where, among speeches, sports and interviews,
The audience was treated to the sight
Of footage filmed aboard a plane in flight,
Featuring what resembled a small comma
In space that punctuated the ring drama
Of its recurrence with a mild display
Of radience enhanced by cathode ray;
And so I saw the object after all,
If not first hand, then in a crystal ball,
The second sight of this dim century,
That dispiriting medium, TV.
I watched awhile and then shut off the set,
Stood up, let the dog in, and went to get
A drink before I let the cat out, locked
The house up and turned in; the ice-cubes rocked
In my glass, clucking sympathy, while framed
Within a windowpane, tiny stars flamed
Enormously in the immense inane;
It seemed whatever musings might explain
The disconcerting music of the spheres
Had ceased to matter much, as no one hears
Anything like harmony in the skies
And comets are snuffed out before our eyes.
Somewhere that misplaced punctuation mark
Awaited faint distinctions in the dark,
But I had vigils of my own to keep
And made my way upstairs and so to sleep.
Leaving the melting remnant of my drink
To come to nothing at the kitchen sink
And wishing other viewers more success
When the next comet comes from emptiness
(If it does come, if our poor atmosphere
Is not pure smog, if we are even here)
To set its blazing match-head to the straw
Of human intellect and then withdraw,
Wheeling around its perihelion
And disappearing with the tail it spun.

From Of the Knowledge of Good and Evil by George Bradley, Alfred A. Knopf
© 1992 George Bradley
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