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Issue 53, April-June 2014
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
The Science of Light
by Donna Steiner
Followed by Q&A

​Stars wobble. Scientists believe that observable wobbling of a star suggests the existence of a nearby planet; the wobble is a result of the orbiting planet’s gravitational tug. Even though the planet is invisible, it’s there—the wobble is evidence of the existence of a body. 

Outside, an ant navigates its way across the globe of a peony. The flowers—fat pink orbs—grow at an angle. They seek out the sun’s rays, which are obscured by a mature maple tree. The peony appears to be stretching, reaching for light. The gesture suggests elements of strain and urgency, similar to that of a horse extending its neck while running. 

A flower is not a globe, a flower is not human. A flower is not even a horse. We name things to isolate them. 

Although heliotropium is a particular genus of plants, over time, heliotrope has come to mean any plant that grows towards the light. Names, it seems, can stretch.

A common typo: plant and planet, one substituted for the other.



That word, above—a corruption, alteration, disruption, enhancement, rupture, call it what you like, of the word light—is a poem, reproduced in its entirety. It was written by Aram Saroyan and published in a Random House collection, creatively titled Aram Saroyan, in 1968. According to the author, the book, comprised of short poems, could be read in one or two minutes. Edwin Newman, in fact, read it on the NBC evening news. That was not why the poem and its author became celebrated, however. After the poem appeared in The Chicago Review, Saroyan received a National Endowment for the Arts poetry award in the amount of $750. Not a lot of money, but that’s $750 per word or about $107 per letter, so not too shabby.

Ian Daly, writing for the Poetry Foundation, said, “The poem doesn’t describe luminosity—the poem is luminosity.”

Jesse Helm, (helm, from the Old English meaning to guide or control), among others – notably William Scherle, a Republican Congressman from Iowa – saw red over the NEA’s award, and his outrage played a large part in making Saroyan’s poem one of the most famous of the last fifty years. (Ask fifty people if they’ve ever heard of it, and you’ll likely get 49 negative responses. Even so: famous.) 

Although it was ridiculed by others—Helm and Scherle being simply the most public and, one might argue, the most publicly ignorant—I’ve been haunted by that poem for decades. Is that what luminosity is—to haunt? 

If you look at the sun and then close your eyes, an afterimage appears, a continuation of the light, as though the inside of your eyelids is a movie screen. 

If you blink your eyes, you miss something.

Luminosity is the study of ghosts. What is left when the material body is gone? Some say light. Some say not.


Hummingbirds shine. Light bounces off air pockets in their feathers at different angles, and the clear bubbles of air act as prisms, making the feathers irridescent. Hummers have the largest hearts, proportionally, of any animal; a hummingbird heart beats between 500 and 1200 times per minute. (That upper register calculates to 20 times per second.) Meanwhile, their wings beat 25 to 75 times per second. They’re tiny, they’re beautiful, and they require lots of fuel. The Portugese call them “flower kissers” because much of that fuel comes from flowers. Procurement of nourishment – they eat while hovering – demands a long tongue and great stores of energy. Round and round they go, flying, feeding, courting, feeding, fighting, feeding. At night they become torpid, and some die in their sleep, exhausted, unable to restart their hearts. 

I have a hummingbird feeder outside my study window. Many times an hour a hummer will arrive, hover, its wings whirring, take a few seconds to sip the sugar water, and then zip away. Sometimes two are in contention for rights to the feeder and there will be confrontations so fast that I can’t tell what’s happening. I’ll see two dark specks in a whirlwind and hear the whizz of their wings, there’s some quick vocalization, and then one speeds away and the other returns to the feeder. I’m not sure if they’re battling for turf, just saying hello, or participating in a mating ritual. But the noise is perpetually at my shoulder; I am always either anticipating the arrival of a bird or noticing it buzz away. The wing-sound becomes almost hallucinatory, incantatory, avian background music. 

Hummingbirds shine, and they swoop, and for just a few months of every year they are coveted visitors. They seem as fleeting as meteors, or the brief visitations of ants when the peonies are on the verge of bloom. 

Visitation is, perhaps, the most bittersweet version of relationship. A visit, after all, is temporary. A meteor, one might say, visits for a split second – we spot it, but if we blink, it’s gone. The ants visit the peony garden for a few days. The hummingbirds visit for a few months. Friends visit, family visits. 

With a visit, there is always a leave-taking. Visits don’t last… ever. 

To live requires a tolerance for the temporal. Visiting is a synecdoche for life. Or, to be blunt about it: we die.

How old are the stars? Between one and ten billion years. How long would it take to reach them? More than a thousand of our lifetimes.

I collect stones and bones. I collect them because they are beautiful. They are artifacts, and remind me of visits. I have looked inside the eye sockets of the skulls of foxes, deer, birds. I have peered inside a turtle egg. I have broken open wasps’ nests, bee hives. Nothing shines inside these things, although there is light.

A cavity within a bone is called a labyrinth. Inside some bones you can see what looks like a honeycomb. A true labyrinth (as opposed to a maze) is not designed to confuse. There is a single path in and, therefore, out. In hiking, this would be called an out-and-back. Some labyrinths look like fingerprints. Others look like the folds of a brain.

My friend is recuperating from a brain aneurysm. He was sitting at his desk. He was fine. He saw a band of light, and then the light fizzled. It was like when a t.v. screen blows out – the light shriveled to a thin, staticky line, and then it was black. When I visited him in the hospital, our hands kept touching. We don’t hold hands in real life. But a body near a body, sometimes, is like a planet near a star. We wobble in our orbits. We lean towards. Sometimes, in my own lonely trajectory, I have a song in my head. Sometimes the song goes like this: el aye gee aitch gee aitch tee.

Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego and is a contributing writer for Hippocampus Magazine. She recently completed a manuscript of linked, place-based essays and is working on a collection of poems. 


Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 

A: At least two things surprised me. First, some of the facts, which surprised me in terms of delight. That stars wobble, for instance, is just fantastic. And the history of the Saroyan poem, as well as its dazzling itselfness, continues to surprise/delight me. In terms of composition, this essay didn’t come together for a very long time – perhaps a number of years. It wasn’t until the events mentioned in the final paragraph that I felt I could really finish it. 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?

A: The only writing advice I ever took to heart was the first advice received, and it’s become a cliché: show rather than tell. I follow it, often to a fault. (Roethke said it better when he asked and answered his own question: “When is description mere?” Answer: “Never.”)

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?

A: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for its imagery, insight, and thrilling language.
Anne Carson, for her phrasing and approach to narrative and structure.
And I might not have become a writer if I hadn’t read Harriet the Spy as a kid.

Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own? 

A: I have a study at home with two desks. One is for my writing and one is for my “art,” which is so primitive as to deserve considerably more emphasis than air quotes. I have a Mac computer and one of those abnormally small Mac keyboards, and keep reference books in easy reach. Perhaps more importantly, I have binoculars nearby and there’s a window that allows for great bird watching, along with a hummingbird feeder (which played a role in the essay). In summer the hummingbirds are so ubiquitous that I hear them buzzing always – and there must be some effect on my writing as I anticipate their ongoing arrivals and departures.