April 11, 2016

John A. Nieves: “I Had No Spiritual Experience (Caput Draconis)”

John A Nieves Author Photo

This week we offer a new poem by John A. Nieves. Nieves is an Assistant Professor of English at Salisbury University in Maryland. His first book, Curio (2014), won the Elixir Press Annual Poetry Award Judge’s Prize. His poems have appeared in many journals including Southern Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Crazyhorse, Cincinnati Review and Indiana Review.
 
Author’s note:

I started working on an elegy for Sally Ride shortly after she died in July of 2012, but I didn’t find the right form for it until June of 2014. Ride had been a childhood hero of mine. I loved listening to her speak. She somehow always sounded both expert and in awe. I wanted to capture that in the poem, I also wanted to capture the line her rhetoric walked between science and poetry. The title itself is a wonderful quote of hers when asked about how it felt to be in space. In the summer of 2014, I was hard at work on a long series of poem that used geomantic figures as a formal and thematic device to explore the questions: “What do we ask for when we are alone or can’t expect a human-produced response? What does that mean about us?” I was reading about the symbol Caput Draconis (the head of the dragon) and it made me think of rockets and Sally Ride. I dug up my notes for her elegy and things began to fall into place. The poem lineation and stanzation mimic the ratio of the dots in the symbol: 2-1-1-1. The lines per stanza then recreate the symbol in a four-to-one ratio: 8-4-4-4. I thought the blending of math and poetry here would help add Ride-ishness to the poem. I hope it is a fitting tribute to a hero to so many.

 

I Had No Spiritual Experience (Caput Draconis)

“The stars don’t look bigger, but they do look brighter.”—Sally Ride

 

In orbit, you were only as distant as the boardwalk
a few towns over. If it weren’t sky between us, I could
have walked to you in less than a day. Dozens of head-
lights could have whizzed by and horns Doppler shift
so I’d know the sound of progress. Now you are
more distant. Your star is dimmer and bigger. Your
hands (that left the world) are now rejoined to it. So,
Sally, since you are now the earth, I ask what name

 

you want for the ghost of up you drew on the skyline—
you who were so skeptical of down, you were hired
to investigate rockets that went that way, to set all future
nosecones aright. I knew the name would matter to you

 

since English and Physics both held sway on your heart.
Like physicists, the poets get to name what they discover.
For once I would like to abdicate part of that power, so
the first symbol I read will sit by your words and mean

 

to begin, to be born of fire and propulsion, to fly. Let’s
stretch our necks and strain our eyes skyward, here,
together, and say. Just say. Like a star or a headlight
says, constantly, insistently, I am here.

 

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