Sunday Science Poem: Defying the Outer Black

Robert Frost’s “A Loose Mountain” (1942)

Leonid_MeteorA Balearic slinging competition, as I learned from, involves slinging rocks at an iron disk fastened to the center of a board. In “A Loose Mountain,” Frost suggests that the Earth may be the target of a cosmic slinging game played with loose mountains instead of small stones, and that the major contestant, the Outer Black, is just waiting for the perfect shot.

Frost plays on the tension between our remarkable achievements as a species and our apparent insignificance in the universe. We can stand outside and ooh and aah over the incineration of high velocity rocks during the Leonid meteor shower, and then walk back inside, out of the night and into our well-lit homes, no longer at the mercy of the diurnal cycle. And yet there is no reason we can’t be snuffed out with one well-placed asteroid, just like the dinosaurs.

However, Frost suggests, we may not be such easy targets. The “heartless and enormous Outer Black” hesitates, unsure of the best shot to take, the one that will get past our ability to “take it” and move ahead.

Frost published this poem in 1942, before it became obvious that we could easily end the game ourselves, before Outer Black finds his true aim.

A Loose Mountain

Did you stay up last night (the Magi did)
To see the star shower known as Leonid
That once a year by hand or apparatus
Is so mysteriously pelted at us?
It is but fiery puffs of dust and pebbles,
No doubt directed at our heads as rebels
In having taken artificial light
Against the sovereignty of night.
A fusillade of blanks and empty flashes,
It never reaches earth except as ashes
Of which you feel no least touch on your face
Nor find in dew the slightest cloudy trace.
Nevertheless it constitutes a hint
That the loose mountain lately seen to glint
In sunlight near us in momentous swing
Is something in a Balearic sling
The heartless and enormous Outer Black
Is still withholding in the Zodiac
But from irresolution in his back
About when best to have us in our orbit,
So we won't simply take it and absorb it.

“A Loose Mountain”, Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays (New York: The Library of America, 1995), originally published in A Witness Tree (New York: Henry Holt, 1942).

Image Credit: Leonid Meteor by Navicore, via Wikimedia Commons.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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