What are you singing?
I’m singing a song.
But what’s your song about?
I don’t know.
You have become a passionate collector since we bought you the backpack. You have always kept a handful of objects in rotation, items you have taken a particular shine to, that have interested you more deeply than others. But the arrival of the backpack has provided fresh impetus, a reason to collect things as much as a place to put them. So it is no longer the objects themselves that are of interest to you, but the novel fact of your possessing them, your having them to hand, within your remit. These are your belongings and you are playing at making them belong to you.
It must be a new sensation, deliberate ownership . . . a little extra electricity in your relation to the world’s ‘waterspout of objects’ as Lorca describes them, each so discrete and phenomenal. There is your tiny sun-blanched snail shell, an acorn, two bits of string, the plastic earrings and the two glass bead necklaces half donated by your mother, four old train tickets, the bright-orange corner of a takeaway menu, a set of two keys on a ring (the location of the corresponding locks long forgotten), a postcard from your great-granny, a bedraggled dandelion head, a small magnifying glass from your Christmas stocking, a set of cheap plastic crimping scissors, a spinning top from a cracker, several stones of no remarkable shape or colour, a rolled-up treasure map your mother drew you last week, a wooden wand, a debit card receipt from the off-licence, a large, yellow, waxy leaf from the magnolia tree . . . no hierarchy, no discernible pattern or consistency to the arrangement, which you assemble and disassemble on the floor about you everywhere you go. Come bedtime, everything must be packed away, carried upstairs, then placed on your chest of drawers next to the bed, to be found again in the morning. In the morning, the items are packed and taken downstairs where you begin a new day of judicious governance, demarcating your landscape, organising its distances while sipping your juice and watching cartoons. You are alone in your logic of category and position, muttering as you work, seeming to name the items as you go, or else providing a commentary on your progress.
If you are very tired, you sometimes ask us to help you, and this is a treacherous undertaking, because in such a state you cannot communicate the exact positioning you are after, the angle or relationship or the reasoning behind it. When we fail to satisfy the particularity of your design, which is inevitable, you turn first furious, then inconsolable. Tears before bedtime. A hostage negotiation, in which we are both negotiator and hostage.
Deep breaths. I know, I know, I must make room for you to explain. But come evening, when I have been patient all day and am also very tired, the exact configuration of a piece of string relative to a wooden bowl relative to a plastic dinosaur (is it meant to be drinking from the bowl or washing in it? Is the string part of this? Is it the dinosaur’s food?) are not specifics I am deeply invested in. I have to dig deep into my reserves. I can see that the little control you have over your world has been overthrown by these minor misalignments. You are so distraught and frustrated. For as long as you have called out to us in want, in confusion, we have tried to meet your demands. The work of our caregiving, our bending to your shape and shade, has been so prevalent that it must surely be imperceptible to you. Now my clumsy, stupid interventions, suddenly arriving from outside of your new thinking, must register like an internal malfunction; you do not understand why I do not understand. Let’s start from the top. The dinosaur, where does she go? After five or six minutes, we have them in place: dinosaur, bowl, string, the elements returned to their periodic table . . . and we are both exhausted and united in our relief.
I don’t consider myself a collector. In fact, I am generally unattached to material things. People tell me I am impossible to buy gifts for because I’m just as happy with one thing as I am another, or nothing at all. Being so ambivalent means that I can also forget to say thank you, which is awful, so I worry about it, and then, when I do remember, I worry that my thanks will seem too performed, disingenuous, which on a certain level I suppose they are, which is also awful.
It is not just that I’m not invested in objects, but that I am irritated by objects that other people deem to be precious because I fear I’m likely to break them, or lose them, or spill tomato sauce or wine down the front of them, or, more neurotically, fear that I might take a blade or blunt object to them deliberately, driven by a sudden, perverse impulse. Precious things, even those given to me lovingly, feel like a test. It is as if my ability to care and be careful is placed under a scrutiny that seems utterly unjust, given that I don’t get any materialist pleasure in exchange, only a dreadful foreboding, a sense that I can only stand to ruin and disappoint.
Before you were born, I knew you would be precious, and I fought against endless dark visions of dropping you, knocking your head against a doorway, tripping up and landing on top of you. I cringed and winced to myself multiple times a day. Unsurprisingly, before you I never enjoyed holding babies; handing them back even after twenty seconds felt like a triumph. The child survived me! It was like that with you for the first few days too. After my turn, feeling your weight leave my arms, I would rise with elation of the unindicted, free-to-go. Seeing all the casual super-dads on train station platforms or striding across beer gardens with their slings and papooses made me prickle with anxiety, though these are, I am sure, normal feelings for a new parent. That I experience a feeling of triumph taking off a new shirt that has made it through dinner is less usual, I would say. If I have a fondness for objects at all it is for those that are already wearing out. New items are as yet unsullied by use, but old items become precious precisely because they have survived so long against the odds. But worn-in objects demand no particular vigilance – T-shirts whose print is fading and seams are stretched, worn copies of books, cheap sunglasses, my creaky writing chair that the barber in Hackney let me have for free, its legs held together with a metal hose clip – I can be entrusted with them freely, these old, waning faithfuls, already in need of replacing. And it is a relief. Because I am clumsy and paranoid I live in fear; relief is my favourite emotion.
Was I always like this? As I child I collected frog ornaments. My collection had more than a hundred pieces at its peak, some ceramic, some wood, mostly cheap plastic. I remember I liked the feeling and ceremony of adding to it, one more to the chorus. I must have packed it away during early puberty, out of shame or a lack of interest. When my parents moved house (long after I had left home) the loft was emptied, and I agreed to have them given away or thrown out. They kept a couple of the nice bronze resin ones that I was given as Christmas and birthday presents, and they live in their bathroom now. I pick them up when I visit, but I don’t feel any attachment. I haven’t collected anything else since, unless you count books, which I accrue rather than pursue. Even then, I’m pretty ambivalent about the editions themselves and I wish I had fewer. A very slow reader, I am hopelessly besieged.
But I do have a drawer in my desk that is full of odd bits and pieces, the hip flask I was given on my eighteenth birthday (a family tradition) and some photos in clip frames I don’t have room to display, a harmonica (in the key of A) in its case, three old mobile phones parked up along the edge of the drawer like limousines in a motorcade. There is also the ceramic pot beside the lamp, where I keep a positive pregnancy test, and two peanuts in their shells that Kaveh sent me all the way from New York City. I like to have them. I like to pick them up and say, ‘New York City’. And I am proud to have kept the peanuts safe for three years now. I can’t see myself throwing the pregnancy test away. But still, there is nothing that I would rush to save in a house fire, or stuff into a suitcase before the tanks roll in. They are just the clog, the mulch, the effluent of the business of living. I know I could start again.
It’s not that I’m not sentimental. I think it’s more the case that I am too sentimental. I find old batteries funereal. I thank cash machines and postboxes, and sometimes, embarrassingly, lifts as I leave them. I feel I could become attached to anything if I was to idly cast some symbolic importance on it, give it a persona, a name, which I do all the fucking time. When it comes to material objects, relativism is a kind of defence, a healthier, less exhausting outcome than the alternative, which is a meaningful and particular relationship with everything.
An obvious analogy occurs: the similarity between the positioning of your miscellaneous objects, and the business of shifting a poem about on a page. Wait, OK, now I understand exactly what you’re doing: that need to go back over and over, testing configurations, rehearsing the through-lines and relations . . . the muttering and staring into space, and yes, admittedly, when I’m tired and feel that I cannot convey my predicament, or the correct formal arrangement does not materialise I, too, know that inconsolable frustration . . . Words have to be right, and in the right order and position.
I pick up your little orange corner of takeaway menu. It is a word as good as any, with its bright, discrete shape and character, retaining a little of the wider history it was torn from; as good as any to carry from room to room, to unpack and repack relative and in response to where it lands or whatever it lands next to. And I understand your need to sit in the middle, laying down your predicament, arranging your poems about you. Your poems about you.
I am often asked what a poem is ‘about’ and it always feels reductive, like the person asking the question is demanding I offer an alternative, snappier version with a clearer, more direct meaning – they do not trust the poem, or they do not trust themselves to trust it. But I try to remember that we talk of moving ‘about’ something to mean around it, almost errantly – one strolls about the park, or dances about the room – and how easily, in this sense, a poem can be about its subject.
‘About’ is also used to mean ‘approximately’. It qualifies an amount with a caveat, which is a paradox, since something cannot be both a certain amount and an uncertain amount, and again, the way in which a poem might be said to be about a tree, for example, appropriately acknowledges the way in which a poem simultaneously measures and approximates its subject.
The centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way, is about 26,000 light years away from Earth. It is thoroughly obscured by huge clouds of dust; no information that we could perceive with the naked eye can ever reach us from beyond that vast cosmic weather front. However, a German astronomer, Reinhard Genzel, turned to the measurement of infrared radiation as a means of exploring the galactic centre, because, although it has a wavelength beyond our visual range, it can penetrate space dust. The highly precise infrared radiation data that Genzel’s team collected throughout the 1990s and early 2000s enabled them to measure and eventually chart the velocities and orbits of the stars closest to the galactic centre, and so build a description of what is there. They found a truly extreme environment, where the velocity of the orbiting stars was so great, and the mass of that region so compacted, that there could only be one explanation: our galaxy is organised around a supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*, with a mass of more than four million times that of our own sun.
Since then, an enormous amount of evidence has been gathered to support the theory that, far from being unique, our galaxy is comparable to our neighbouring large galaxies, in the sense that they, too, have a supermassive black hole at their nucleus.
If all the large galaxies of the universe have a supermassive black hole at their centre, then these huge phenomena, taken together, can be viewed as a grand parliament. Our own municipal representative, Sagittarius A*, has overseen the relatively stable conditions in which all intelligent life that we are aware of has evolved. All human knowledge, activity and experience has derived from the circumstantial conditions created by an object that we humans can never experience directly, and that will always keep the fundamentals of its nature hidden from us. A black hole is a perfect analogy for uncertainty, for how life and reality ‘transcend intellect’. Our entire existence depends upon these points in space where mass is compressed infinitely inwards, to an essentially unreachable centre, unreadable in any of our languages. And yet we know they are there, because of that which they draw into their orbit, which we can read and interpret. Perhaps instead of speaking of objects at the centre of large galaxies, we could say that such a galaxy describes to us the uncertainty at its centre, by the activity it performs about it.
You don’t know what your song is about?
And what are you singing about now?
I am singing about a song.
I want to live more uncertainly, and to understand uncertainty as a fundamental feature of how I know the world. I want to be less wasteful and reductive through it. And I want you to have a fuller, more profound experience of being alive by also being able to be in uncertainty. So I have started to try and ask myself not what I know, but what do I know about? How much do I know about it? I have tried not to think of facts, or pieces of information, as knowledge itself, but as material being drawn into the orbit of what I don’t or can’t know. It helps me visualise the way I know things and, more importantly, to understand that even the things I do feel I know about, are not irrefutable chunks. The agreed facts and dates and names have only become the fixed coordinates through a process of argument and debate and experimentation, but knowledge itself involves a further correlative enterprise, something more creative and intuitive, like the way an eye moves and gathers its story, each point drawn into the shape of a constellation, or like pointillist dots that render a picture only when one stands back and places them in relation to each other. Just like Genzel did. Just like you do.
In order to understand what a black hole is, it is necessary to first understand in basic terms some of the principal ideas of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein’s theory explains that an object with mass distorts space-time around it, which we experience as gravitational force of attraction. Often, physicists use a 2D analogy of a trampoline and an object sitting on it, where space-time is the fabric of the trampoline, and the object, let us say a daughter, represents mass. The daughter’s massive presence bends the fabric. It creates a curvature of the space-time trampoline that she is sitting in the middle of. Were you to introduce other items, say the contents of the daughter’s rucksack, to the trampoline, they would each be drawn towards her at the centre by the bending of the fabric, where they would finally collide with the daughter. This is what we call gravity. As Carlo Rovelli puts it:
The gravitational field is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself. This is the idea of the theory of general relativity. Newton’s ‘space’, through which things move, and the ‘gravitational field’ are one and the same thing.
But how far can the trampoline bend? What if the daughter was the size of a marble but had the mass of a million daughters? Then the fabric of the trampoline would be pulled into a severe funnel. This severe funnelling of space-time is what a black hole is. Except, in reality we live in a 4D universe, so the funnelling is not happening downwards, but inwards from all directions. The ‘funnel’ is a vast region of space-time curving increasingly inwards, towards the black hole at the centre who is imploding into herself. At a certain distance from the centre of the black hole, even light is unable to escape the sheer extent of her inward curvature, and beyond this ‘event horizon’ no information escapes. This is what is meant by the ‘blackness’ of the black hole.
It is theorised that an inner horizon exists, where matter entering the black hole meets the matter already violently imploding, and this is thought to be one of the most extreme environments in the universe.
Physicists call the centre of a black hole a ‘singularity’; the general theory of relativity no longer works there. We don’t have a description for the forces and their physical relationship that coheres with the rest of reasonable thought. The word ‘singularity’ derives from the Latin singularis, which means ‘alone’, as in unique, which I find very poetic, in the sense that it might also describe a person, say, a daughter, and how their uniqueness as a central, discernible thing, is fundamentally obscured from the outside, and yet is something we can see from the particular activity and arrangement they enact upon the world around them.
I also like that the word ‘singularity’ contains the word ‘sing’, because song is what happens when ordinary language bends and, by its curvature, is able to describe a phenomenon beyond reason.
Singularities have existed in theoretical terms for over a hundred years, but the problem is that the maths of a singularity describes an illogical situation in reality: how can mass be compacted into an infinitely small point in space with infinitely great gravity? As Michio Kaku explains:
To a mathematician infinity is simply a number without limit; to a physicist it’s a monstrosity!
This description is not compatible with the physical universe as we otherwise know or encounter it. How can all the mass of a black hole be contained within a space that takes up no space at all? At the point of a singularity,
space makes no sense; it means the collapse of everything we know about the physical universe. In the real world there is no such thing as infinity; therefore there is a fundamental flaw in the formulation of Einstein’s theory.
– Michio Kaku
Mathematicians have tried to apply the laws of quantum mechanics to the problem of the singularity. After all, quantum mechanics provides a mathematical description of the world on an atomic scale that experiment has shown to be astonishingly accurate, even though we cannot encounter that world directly through our senses (more on this later). But singularities are not only small, they also have a huge mass and therefore exert a huge gravitational force, which is not the case with the atoms and particles of the quantum world; a singularity described in quantum terms returns the result of infinite infinities, which to a physicist must be a monstrous monstrosity! So now physicists are searching for a theory of quantum gravity, a reconciliation of quantum mechanics and general relativity, to accommodate both the infinitesimal scale of singularities, and the massive forces at play. In the meantime the singularity remains an enigma, a contradiction, an uncertainty, a little poem at the centre of everything.
Poems and black holes have a lot in common. Both have a singularity, for instance. Poems also keep their centres hidden, and like black holes they do not return a final value but indicate a place that falls outside of the usual laws of the language we use to the describe them. The critic Cleanth Brooks wrote of ‘the heresy of paraphrase’, the act of describing a poem outside of the terms of its particular configuration; a poem is precisely these words in this order, laid out like this, and so it follows that to paraphrase what a poem is saying – using different terms, in a different order – is a heretical act.
On the whole, most people understand that the value of a poem comes largely out of an acceptance of its singularity, an acceptance of its uncertain value, which does not, after all, prohibit you from enjoying the feeling of being drawn into it, the pull of its gravity. The aftermath of a good poem is not unlike the physicist’s infinity outcome: a monstrosity according to the standard rules and definitions . . . and yet, there it is, churning away in space, a small, massive song. Such an outcome is not an intellectual or emotional impasse, but a dynamic form of obscurity, to be gnawed upon indefinitely.
Like Genzel and his team, we can identify a poem’s meaningfulness not by looking directly at it, but by charting the material, the feelings, associations, images and memories that it draws towards its singularity: words undergoing extreme curvature, compacting into a kind of knowledge that after a certain point cannot be apprehended from outside this dense and dark configuration.
The mathematical ‘singularity’ of infinite density and space-time curvature that supposedly lies at the hearts of black holes is an admission of defeat.
– ‘Black Hole Breakthrough’, New Scientist, 20 April 2019
Or we might say that a poem is an admission of defeat for language as we normally use it to describe the world, language collapsing, densifying, increasing its gravity, summoning a further field of associations and testing our sense of relativity. Or perhaps we are the singularity at the centre of a poem, our personhood, our predicament causing the collapse of language about us, our uncertainty a place of infinite gravity.
I admit defeat. To the universe
and walls of dust.
Nothing can be known; not even
the subject of the song, subject
to its curvature, subject at the centre,
singular one and song, your
gravity your gravity; everything you touch
an ornament to its articulation.
Your world arranged about you,
like a crater
on the surface of the room.
This essay is excerpted from Not Even This by Jack Underwood, out with Corsair.