What Light I Can Conjure

by Mary Alexandra Agner

When I find that I walk through the land of the dead,
into Hades or Dante’s inferno of hells,
and the water which seeps through the caulk of the halls
makes a glove for my hand as it brushes the wall
on my left, always left, in the maze of the dead

so my right reaches out to take hold of the void,
I call out, with what light I can conjure inside,
for my Virgil, born Mary in Fairfax and died
as a Somerville, scientist, writer. My guide
to the gears of the globe and the laws of the void

has the hands of the idle, though smudged with dark ink
from Laplace’s Celestial Mechanics (the lines
of her English beside his mathematical signs).
And her eyes are small points in her face, though they shine
so I see my reflection emerge from the ink

of her pupil, alive in the haze and the cold.
Then it pivots, it looks at the rock, at her light,
at the whole of the dark, but for me. Hand clenched tight
on the wall, it looks up, just reversed to my sight.
Our eyes meet. Nested doll, there I am, in the cold

blue-grey pits that recurse, endlessly, and I curse
that the damp’s not the dew, nor the darkness the skies,
that my pallor of skin is a whiteness that lies:
I’m a star and I burn past the blue of sunrise.
But this Escher self-portrait revolves, while I curse,

as an orrery, ticking, metallic, in birth
to a comet, plume waving when warmed: solid brass
for this twin who still wavers before me, no mass
for the strength of our sun to curl inward and grasp.
If we touch in this emptiness, what will we birth?

But the Lady of Science, voice roughened by years,
interrupts as our mirror of hands makes a plane
so we pause. In the tilt of its head is the claim
that it’s more than my body reflected: not tamed,
no mere copy, a being with choices and years

left discovering the graben and karsts of its life,
a geology only askew from my own
by a difference in particle paths that are shown
by limp squiggles in textbooks, by worldlines in cones
in Minkowski spacetime. In that arc of its life,

of what seeds and what hollows did it craft the points
of desire, what fears the line segments? Would touch
be of intimate nature enough for how much
of this other I need? No handshake, I will clutch
with my words. I draw breath. Mrs. Somerville points

to my double, insistent; my oracle speaks
of Sir Isaac’s third law. I won’t do as I ought,
I’ll do both, so I’ll meet with this self and the doubt
newly bodied, momentum increasing with shouts
of approval, in vectors, from Mary, and speak—

bite my lip on the sounds as they shatter the form
of the woman I was, who might share the unknown:
why I’m here, how I’m lost, where I’m headed alone,
all the tales she might tell of a girl she had known
less afraid of herself than the need to transform.

In the tears of my guide and her uneven breath,
I hear pity: this death as my payment. My flesh,
though in pain, still offends by its brightness immeshed
in this dark. But the shards of my double are fresh
with the spark of her life and they pulse with her breath,

the way lava flows flicker and cool. I bend down,
with my hand on the wall, and retrieve a small sphere
like a chondrule, misplaced, but so anciently clear
as a sign of formation I let go my fear
in my wonder. I whistle, it sings. My guard’s down

to immensity, quantifed, unquantifiable.
With all senses so open I finally note
my uneven scribblings on the hem of her coat,
in the shadows of Mary-light. Caught in my throat
is the question that asks for the unquantifiable,

for the number and nature of visits I’ve made
to this place where I die. But this time I will find
my way out on my own: I’ve the maze in my hand.
I hold tight to my light as your wick’s smoke unwinds,
Mary mine, as you unblood the pact we have made,

and your lace and equations fade out, like all dead,
to the past. We're connected by names, by exchange
of photons and our breath, by quarks charming and strange.
And yet none of these binds me to you. I can change.
When I find that I walk through the land of the dead

it’s a choice I have made, the road taken, a turn,
a refusal to leave from the energy shell
of the lowest potential, a force parallel
to my circular motion, the spiral my cells
just inherently seek. It’s a choice. So I turn

to the blocks on the scale which determine the heft
of my heart: on my right, the large weight that’s chock-full
with this dampness, forgetfullness, countered by pull
from the slice of a geode whose size can’t annul
all the colors it casts on the cave. I would heft

the wet burden, if not for the rainbow in rock
whose kaleidoscope beauty reminds me of me.
And no matter the distance, square roots, gravity,
I delight in myself, in the sorrows and sea
of my name. In my death. I let go of the rock.

In the darkness that, with just a blink of the eye,
is my void, my interior stars multiply
and the chondrule ignites, my old self amplified.