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Painting by Gloria Alford
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Robert Sward

The Astronomer, A Universe for Beginners

       MATH TEACHER: Sexual position when you are doing your partner and you yell out math problems like "What is the square root of 4?" and "What is 5+5?" You fuck him/her harder and harder to try to get her/him to get these simple problems wrong.  --Urban Dictionary

“All galaxies in observable space
Recede from ours at the speed of light.”
Navy vet undergrad, I follow
      taking notes.
I’m with her, the astronomer.
“What’s the square root of four?” she asks
             all aglow,
Straddling me in the morning light. I’m imagining…
             milky white and pinkish blue…
 “Continuous creation out of nothing from nowhere”.
She looks around the lecture hall. Points at me.
“What are we here for?”
“I dunno,” I say, flustered. “I mean…”
“In the beginning there was nowhere,” she says.
 “It all began with a ball of gas vibrating
And a great roaring,” I scribble.
“The entire observable universe
             would have been
                       about the size of a grain of sand.”
Jesus, I’m thinking, now that’s the way to begin a story!

But there’s a complication.
“Our universe should be slowing down,” she says,
“Instead, it’s speeding up…
And galaxies are being forced further and further apart,
Stretching the very fabric of space.”
Now she’s riding me, harder, harder…
“The energy for that has to come from somewhere.
Dark, we call it, dark as in ‘unknown,’ dark… the dark forever.”
O… Celeste, O Celeste!


       COLLAPSING THE DECKCHAIR: Sexual position in which the receiver lays (sic.) on his/her back, with waist at the edge of a bed. The giver stands next to the bed, with the receiver's legs on his/her shoulders. While penetrating, the giver may--at his/her discretion--lean forward to create extra tension…  --Urban Dictionary

 Teacher with a giant star chart, the whole of heaven in her arms.
“You’ll need a telescope.” Adjusts her Orion SyQuest…
 “Can you see it?” Points—to…
On my knees, squinting, I bow before the eyepiece.
“Cassiopeia,” she announces, “the Seated Queen…
Cassiopeia in a deck chair.”
Up periscope! Go Bronco Buster,’ I’m thinking,
‘Missionary Position, Side Entry Constellation,
Puppet Master…’
“Legs up, legs up,” I hear her say. “R U ready?”
What? What’d she say?
‘C’ student, I can barely keep up, don’t know the math.
It’s all darkness, a Universe for Beginners.
“Cassiopeia is at the edge of the Milky Way,” she goes on.
“Five bright stars in the constellation form a rough ‘W’ in the sky. Some see in this formation the shape of a chair.
“You over there, Mr. ____” –gestures from her lectern—
          “name and locate four others.”
 ‘Swing Time, Lazy Man, Belly Flop, Man Chair…’ I say.
Digs in her heels beside her hips. I’m imagining…
“Align yourself,” says Celeste. “Consider the angle--
That’s it, that’s it,” Figure 8 Swivel,
The Lock and Pose, the Space Wheel…
The bulk of matter in the universe is dark,” she says.
It’s the invisible scaffolding for the formation of stars.
Dark matter,” she goes on, “ dark matter exerts a ghostly pull
On normal matter…”
Her ankles round my neck, I kiss her knees,
Leaning now, leaning forward

O… Celeste, Celesta, Ce-les-tas, Ce-leste


       SPACE WHEEL: Sexual position that can only be performed effectively in outer space and less effectively while submerged underwater. The position is characterized by a standing doggy style without thrusting but rather with a circular motion of the female participant just like an airplane propeller.” –Urban Dictionary


“Mass can consist of both visible matter, like stars,
And invisible dark matter,” she says.
“Dark matter: a web-like structure…
Stretches throughout space,” I scribble.
“Only because of the hidden,
            does the visible world exist,” she goes on.
What… whaat? I’ve lost her.
“Let me explain. Most of the universe seems to consist of nothing we can see.
4% visible matter; 96% invisible…
And imagine: Dark energy makes up over 2/3 of the energy
In the universe, dark energy, some say,
That’s what’s pushing the universe apart.” She holds up a chart.

We huddle together at the bottom of a pool,
Beanpole undergrad and the astronomer,
Clerestory windows above us. Imagining…
“You know, there’s no escape,” she says.
Gravity, gravity holds it all together.”

“There is a way,” I say, grasping her from behind,
As, weightless, near weightless,
            she begins to rotate,
Faster and faster
Tight, black neoprene silver goggles and angel fins
Celeste, O Celeste, spiraling
Kissing first her neck, then her ankles, neck, ankles,
Auburn hair afloat and whirls
As still she turns, propeller, O propeller

And we rise heavenward from the tiled bottom
Beanpole and mermaid professor
Dawn’s early light, rockets red glare
Lecture hall and telescopes lectern spinning in air
O Celeste, Celeste,

                       O fairest of the fair!

After the Bypass

[Rosicrucian podiatrist father]

Palm Springs, CA

1. In The Hospital

“Don’t trust the world, son. It’s filled
with holes. The best thing is to love…”

                                    Love what, dad?

“Emptiness. I’ve been meaning to tell you:
There’s a giant scroll suspended below the world
            and it says this world
                                    is made from letters and numbers
and every number is infinite.
Anyway, I’m invisible, son.”

                                    Dad, I can see you.

“You have two fathers,
                                    one you can see,
one who looks like me;
            and one you can’t,
the father you’ll never see.
The invisible is invisible,
but I need to make a living.
I’m a doctor.What good is a doctor
if you can’t see him?
Don’t look at me like that. I’m still a Jew,
but some days all I see is Roses and Crosses.
Did you know the male body has nine holes in it?
Seven of those holes are in the head. So there you have it.
The world is a leaky boat, son.”

2. Checking Out

Rosy cheeked father in a wheel chair.
He pulls out a toothpick. Makes little sucking noises
with his teeth. “Hospital food. Not as bad as they say.”

Lights a cigarette.

“She’s against it.”

“Who do you think? She’s against
the invisible.”

Throws away the toothpick.

“I’ve fallen into a place where everything is music.
You know, if people could take a pill
and become invisible
there would be nobody in sight. It’s true. The world
            is made of love,
of our love for emptiness.
Ach, what the hell! Visible, invisible,
            It’s all the same.
Still, the world you go round thinking you can see
is filled with holes, and for every hole
            in this world
            there’s a hole in the other. If you look,
you can see through the cracks.
I have a treasure now, it’s true,
            but no body.
And you, you meshugge, you have a body,
but no treasure.
You should take the year off. Spend some time
at the Invisible College.”

3. Course of Study

Lesson #1

“Stars ejaculate. That’s how the world
            came into being.
From sperm. The Sperm of the Stars.”

Lesson #2

“There is no place empty of God.

“Darkness is a candle, too.

“So open the window in your chest.
Let the invisible fly in and out.”

Lesson #3

“The invisible is more existent than all the visible things.
Talmud says.
Still, when you leave your body there’s not much to stand on.
And there’s a crack in the cosmic egg.
Truth is, this world is just one side of the nothing
that’s on the other side.”

Lesson #4

“Now I’ll tell you about death.
Life has an eye to see, says Talmud,
                                     but what do you think Death has?
Death is made of eyes,
                                     made of eyes, dressed in eyes.
And when she comes, she comes with a knife
            in her hands.
And you go through the wall and it’s a flaming word.
Death is what happens when all you have left
            is the life that was there all along.
But remember: you’re still gonna need money
            when you die.”

Robert Sward

Robert Sward has taught at Cornell University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and UC Santa Cruz (1987-2000). A Fulbright scholar and Guggenheim Fellow, he was chosen by Lucille Clifton to receive a Villa Montalvo Literary Arts Award. His more than 20 books include FOUR INCARNATIONS (Coffee House Press), now in its second printing. HEAVENLY SEX; and the COLLECTED POEMS, also in its second printing. LATEST: Red Hen Press' edition of NEW & SELECTED, 1957-present (avail. Bookshop Santa Cruz,  Capitola Book Cafe and from the author). Born and raised in Chicago, Robert served in the U.S. Navy in the combat zone during the Korean War and later worked for CBC Radio and as a book reviewer and feature writer for the Toronto Star and Globe & Mail in Canada. A twenty-five year resident of Santa Cruz, he is married to visual artist Gloria K. Alford.

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