Sometimes – often, in fact, though not always, not when secretiveness is deliberate – you can tell when someone is smitten. The volcanologist and science journalist Robin George Andrews certainly is, writing in The New York Timesabout that “beautiful volcanic pearl in the sky and its mystifying moonbeam”. He isn’t the only one – he quotes Sarah Luetgenn, a scientist studying the moon’s tail, as saying, so simply, “It almost seems like a magical thing.”
The moon as a volcanic pearl – the moon as magical – such delight when science and poetry dance together. And yes, it appears the moon has a tail, comet-like: discovered after the Leonid meteor shower of 2008 intensified its brightness and carefully studied ever since, it is made of sodium dust. The planet Venus appears comet-like at times too; its ionosphere billows out in a teardrop-shaped tail when solar wind density is low.
I, a poet who is not a scientist, have turned the thought of that pearl over and over in the palm of my mind, pondering it. Pondering its comet tail. Poetry always comes, or returns, to the smitten.
A beloved who was born under a sting-tailed moon, whose star chart and mine entwined, collided and imploded supernovically, came back. The shape of the constellations revealed themselves to me again after many nights of artificial light.
The moon’s sodium tail cannot be seen by the naked human eye. But it’s there, hundreds of thousands of miles long, a lingering. Because of the moon’s orbit, over the course of each month the Earth becomes encircled by its beam of scattered sodium. This makes me think of a mandala of salt, a sphere of protection and belonging.
There is a type of moonlight that is called earthshine, faintly illuminating the orb within which a young crescent grows or recedes in the evenings after or preceding a new moon. Words intoned under the dark moon become incantations; one makes a choice between shadow or ashen glow. Both are ways to name the area of earthshine, that phenomenon when the hidden whole decides to claim its place.
A hundred years before the astronomer Johannes Kepler brought planetshine into scientific understanding, Leonardo da Vinci – who held imagination and the measurable in perfect symmetry – wrote in his notebooks about this phenomenon. He believed the moon to be oceanic, and he knew that at least some of its light, at least on certain memorable nights, came from the earth.
Even NASA doesn’t retreat into technical jargon, letting the grace of language – of old, old ways of seeing – describe what is. The waxing crescent is “the old moon in the new moon’s arms”. The waning crescent is known as “the new moon in the old moon’s arms”.
There’s a cradling in the sky that we are fortunate to behold, when we look up at the right moment, some configuration of place, time, instinct and opportunity that makes us pause in our tracks. If we’re sensible, we’ll know this is nothing special – it comes around every month. If we’re honest, though, we surrender: to love’s lunar pull, happenchance’s centripetal force, the heart’s hard-to-see but not invisible preordained and chosen trajectories.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 18th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.