David Lunde

Insufficient Data

The Light of Nerves

The Explanation
[first published in The Beloit Poetry Journal, 1968]
[reprinted in Star*Line, 1989]

Malgré la Nuit Seule et le Jour en Feu
[first published in Star*Line 28.4]
[2005 Rhysling Award nominee]
[collected in The 2006 Rhysling Anthology]

Insufficient Data

There was a man who thought, "If only I were a machine, I would not doubt." In his conscious mind he was too filled with fear of pain and the neighbors to act, but in his subconscious the seed put down roots. Shortly, as he was trimming dead limbs from a shade tree, his hand strayed carelessly into the chainsaw and was lopped off at the wrist. He had it replaced with the most sophisticated prosthesis available: a miracle of precision, it was responsive to the minute electrical impulses of his nervous system onto which it was grafted. With its power augmented by batteries, it was stronger than the original, and soon he had learned to control it with great delicacy.

His wife, however, complained that it never warmed up and insisted that he wear a cotton glove to bed. But when she at last had lapsed into sleep, he would stealthily slip off the silly glove and hold the wonderful hand up for the stars to admire their reflections in. Silvery sheets of light swirled and flowed as he gently manipulated its digits. Hand that never tires, fingers that never shake.

It wasn't long before a train carelessly ran over his feet. A cement mixer crushed his legs when he stumbled in front of it. Trying to patch his roof, he fell, crushing his skull and left arm.

You get the picture. Accident by accident, part by part. Soon he was powerful and gleaming all over, his plastic heart hummed smoothly, the new pumps and hydraulics were tireless.

Was he happy? Was he proud? Did he doubt?

His telltales blink green and yellow: Operational. On standby.


         The Light of Nerves

         Against the star stuff
                   the despair of the eyelids
                             god's empty face:

         the essential hydrogen
                   of the eyes' own cones
                             and rods discharging

         an anxious static
                   strobing reflexively
                             against blackness.


         The Explanation

     I.  The strangers, their eyes
          focused on distance. They
          proceed with purpose, this much
          is clear. I speak in their
          direction; their pace
          does not slacken; their need
          is peremptory. There is a muffling
          glass between us. I gape
          like a fish mouthing
          the edge of the world. The vision
          shuts like a window.

   II.  It is a message of hope, or so
          I interpret it. Pressing
          stiff fingers into the soil,
          I have the taste of candied
          citron, tangerines, crisp vegetables
          on my tongue. But an uneasy wind
          gnaws at the leaves, it ticks
          ominously in my instruments. The soil
          draws away from the roots.

  III.  I am strapped in. There is
          no light. At my fingertips
          blind workmen assemble
          delicate, complex machinery
          calibrated in Braille.
          I feel my nerves blooming
          out of my pores. They probe
          the air like antennae. All
          sensation is amputated
          by the silence. My mind
          peoples the room with explanations.

  IV.  Speakers are grafted into the bones
          of my skull. When the volume is high
          the words retain only
          the meaning present
          in the resonance of bone. But low
          the whole body, the surge of it,
          mutes to hear. Who
          can doubt
          the lies of his own bones?

    V.  I cannot separate vision
          from projection: I respond
          without stimulus. I ask
          the voice but there
          is no answer. The vision
          returns: the emperors
          are seated closely around
          the table; below the waist
          they are naked, their hands
          grope like insects among
          the loose hairs of their thighs.

  VI.  There is a dial
          to register the tolerance
          of my heart; meters
          monitor my pulse, my
          breath, muscle tension, gland
          secretions, the electric
          potential of my nerves, my brain.
          Soon the vision will
          recur, the needles
          will lurch
          into the red, soon
          all the instruments will agree.


     Malgré la Nuit Seule et le Jour en Feu*

       When he loomed up, so solid there in the doorway—
       you know how they make you feel insubstantial,
       like they've got an extra dimension or something
       that you don't?—well, I thought he was lost,
       wrong building, wrong street, wrong door, though
       you wouldn't think one of them would make a mistake,
       not a Pilot, but he knew my name! knew what I did,
       wanted to hire me! What the hell for, I thought,
       what would he want with a comfort girl? Known
       fact that they've got no heart, can't use their cocks,
       can damp out any pain they want, so what's he need?

       He wanted me to hold him, hold him like a baby: . . .
       said he remembered his mother holding him, but not
       how it felt to be held . . .
                                                     said sometimes out there,
       in the dark between the stars, plugged into the ship,
       transiting the abyss in the untime of underspace,
       with the only sensation that tiny pulse of electrons,
       the autonomic nervous system of Pilot/Ship,
       he felt so much a part of something larger-
       not just the Ship, but man and Ship together, one entity
       designed to live where nothing can—nothing that we know,
       at least, though he thought at times he sensed a presence
       both aware and utterly indifferent, something that might
       eradicate a galaxy purely as a consequence of some work
       we'd never comprehend—anyway, he felt as if he'd
       lose himself, be swallowed by the Ship, the void,
       the thing out there that couldn't care, in spite
       of all the safeguards he'd had built in, all the human
       things they'd taken out. He said he knew his mind
       could feel, even without the chemicals of joy or fear.
       So I held him, held that heavy, hardly human body
       in my arms, and told him lies: that there's no need
       to fear the dark, that everything's all right, that he's
       Mommy's big, brave boy, and I hummed him bits of tunes,
       half-remembered songs of Earth, maybe lullabies—
       I'm not one to know—Stars, how he thrashed about!
       He like to've crushed me with his spasms—next day
       I was nothing but bruises, stiff as a stanchion.

       Maybe they don't dream like us,
       maybe the whole voyage is one long almost-dream
       infused with the aching void, and that suspicion
       of something so much greater, the understanding
       of just how little consequence anything human will ever be . . .
       It's too bad they don't know how to cry,
       but after awhile he went to sleep, and I realized
       I'd done it for him. Talk about feeling stupid—
       do you cry for a damaged tool? Strange too
       to be feeling sorry for someone you'd always envied,
       and I wondered then which of the two of us
       had more to fear, and which of us was braver.

*The title is from Arthur Rimbaud's "Un Saison en Enfer," in the subsection "Faim."

"Malgré la Nuit Seule et le Jour en Feu" is an addition to the group of poems collected in my chapbook Blues for Port City (Mayapple Press, 1995), which are supposed to have been written by a woman poet named Nulle about the place and time in which she lived—an asteroid starport in the 22nd C. I felt then, and still do, that Nulle's world had only begun to be explored, and have always intended to expand it. I hope to publish an expanded version in the future—sometime before the 22nd century.

David Lunde is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in such journals as Poetry, The Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, Kansas Quarterly, Chelsea, Confrontation, Hawai'i Review, Chicago Review, Seneca Review, Cottonwood, The Literary Review, Renditions, Poetry Northwest, and Northwest Review. Most recent books: Blues for Port City, Heart Transplants & Other Misappropriations, Nightfishing in Great Sky River, and The Carving of Insects, a translation of Bian Zhilin's collected poems co-translated with Mary M.Y. Fung.

content Copyright © 2006, David Lunde—All Rights Reserved