At 4:31 AM, January 17, 1994, a previously unknown blind thrust fault under the San Fernando Valley near the town of Northridge ruptured. About twenty seconds later, much of western and northwestern Los Angeles suburbia lay in ruins. Even in Tujunga, where I lived, more than ten miles from the epicenter, the shaking was fierce. I found later that the back bedroom had slid partly off its foundation and then back, and the chimney had broken in half and was held up only by some twisted rebar.
My life was already in ruins. To me the earthquake was simply a real-life pathetic fallacy: my first wife had moved out the night before. The wait for dawn seemed very long; I had only a few candles, and there were multiple aftershocks. At sunrise, from my second story deck, I could see a slice of the San Fernando Valley with the dawn light revealing a pall of dust punctured by plumes of smoke. And no lights, anywhere.
I did not have power for a couple of days, and could not get to work for longer. After cleaning up the inside of the house, which hadn’t suffered too much damage (the only casualty in the kitchen was a bottle of soy sauce), I had a lot of time on my hands. The following poem was one result.
The Music of the Spheres
(Following the Northridge earthquake of January 17, 1994)
I was browsing through the essays of Montaigne not long ago,
Reclining in the shadow of the century-old oak that shades my home,
Half drowsing in the warmth of a hazy winter day
In the city of the angels, where the sun first strikes the Ring of Fire.
We cannot hear the music of the spheres, he wrote,
Because our hearing sense is deafened,
Like the smith among the hammers of his forge,
By continual exposure to that marvelous harmony.
I let the book fall on my lap; the windows of the house were open,
Letting out the measured agony of Mahler’s Ninth,
Impassioned protest written knowing all too well
That death was coming, as to all, to bear him into silence.
But the noontide life around me disregarded that grim knowledge
As in a chattering blur a hummingbird pursued his rival past in twisting flight.
I watched them out of sight around the corner of the house
And noted then a tiny glitter in the air before my eyes:
An insect, ephemenoptera perhaps, minute perfection,
Oak-dappled sunlight glinting off of irridescent wings
Blurring in the mindless dance of procreation
For which its Maker has granted it a single day.
You cannot hear this music, can you, little one? I thought,
To you the grandeur of a dying man’s glorious scream of rage
Is but a modulation of the breeze that blows you to your mate
And heedless thence to death.
Then overhead the massive oak tree twitched
Shaking its leaves in a sibilant shudder that died away too slowly
As the house creaked once again in warning of the unfirm earth,
Reminder of a moment’s fury that had ended half a hundred lives.
A scattering of oak leaves drifted down upon the page;
I closed the book and trapped them in the words I knew now to be wrong:
It is not deafness which forbids that stellar music to our ears
But that we are too small, and live too fast.
The odd fact is that humankind is poised, almost precisely,
Halfway between the largest and the smallest things there are,
Midway along the chain of being that leads from subatomic particle
To the spiral clouds of hydrogen that birthed the stars.
If you could scale a few more rungs upon that cosmic ladder,
Growing until the stratosphere lapped round your chest,
Your heartbeat once a century, your breaths the measure of millennia—
Then you would just begin to hear the song of Earth.
It rises from her iron core, engendered by the almost stellar heat
Of actinide decay, the life-bestowing legacy of dying stars
To a world more distant from us than the farthest galaxy;
No human eye will ever see the planet’s hidden heart.
From there the heat flows up in vast slow wheels stood on end,
Convection in a medium forbidden to be solid by that heat,
Forbidden to be liquid by weight on weight of layered rock,
Driving the erratic clockwork twitching of the planet’s crust
Where granite plates like rugged ships dismasted and adrift
Scud grindingly across a sea of fire more terrible than any Dante saw,
Some clashing past each other in a multimillion-year collision
And some, subducted under, melting back into their formless elements.
So, looking down then from your unaccustomed eminence
Poised among the stars, your wisdom grown in scale with your frame,
You’d see that all of us have built our lives, the castles of our dreams,
On crumbling clouds of stone.
And, shrinking once again to normal size, your epiphany then failing,
You might retain a ragged memory of what you’d seen from higher up,
A fading recollection of the music of a lively Earth whose instruments
Are stone, and heat, and fire, and molten rock.
You might, indeed, then realize, next time the ground convulsed,
That we, like mayflies hovering above an orchestra, sense but the grossest sounds;
And know the cymbal crash that crushes us between its clanging rims
For what it is: mere accent in a symphony we cannot hear.
January 20 – February 6, 1994