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There Are More Cells in One Human Body Than There Are Stars in the Universe


The body is a way of understanding the universe and so the universe must be a way of understanding the body. In either case, the deepest thinking about either is less as a scientist and more as a poet. The intuitive leaps that quantum physics and particle physics and theoretical physics make about the nature of reality, are nothing less than the same leaps made in poetry.

It’s why “42” may be as good an answer, as it was in Douglas Adams’ book, to the life, the universe and everything. Though, as the punchline goes, what is the question? In the ancient epic of the Ramayana, Hanuman takes a leap from the mainland of India to the island of Sri Lanka. It’s a fantastic story and there is a fantastically difficult yoga asana named after the feat. But what’s better is that now, using space-imaging satellites, a real bridge, seemingly man-made by its construction of regularly placed limestone boulders, has been revealed in the spot.

As Donald Revell writes, “The moon is hawk of the waste spaces…//I had a good day and then another/I was married to mountains on all sides of me.”

I know there’s a system—it’s obvious in every breath—that binds all matter, inanimate and animate, together. In Western thought, it’s science—that matter neither appears nor disappears but is constant and if it is constant in time then it must be constant in space, so I figure, meaning it is the same matter. In Eastern thought it governs energy: the law of karma which says that all motion affects all other motion, that the universe is a set of relationships, called sometimes “the diamond net of Indhra.”

My favorite is the term from Islamic philosophy kismet, because it incorporates matter and energy and human will into a single gesture. Such kismet includes all actions, there being no such things as a “success” or a “failure.” In a way it goes beyond the body, beyond the physical universe and into a space of intention. To me the poem is the space we can make of language and breath to travel into this space.

Jack Halberstam invokes “failure” as one locus where the queer body can make its stand against the heteronormative injunction to conform. Speaking of fellow theorist Jose Munoz, Halberstam writes that Munoz “explains the connection between queers and failure in terms of a utopian ‘rejection of pragmatism,’ on the one hand and an equally utopian refusal of social norms on the other.”

That was Icarus to me, refusing to do what he was told, flying as he pleased regardless of the risk. One thing the myth doesn’t tell us is whether or not Icarus considered the fall worth the transgression. “A soul has to sin to be saved,” wrote Fanny Howe.

Still, it could be reasonably considered a lot to gamble, especially in ancient times—to risk expulsion from the social order could mean death; outside the walls of city lay a “wilderness,” which not the least of it was the realm of wild animals. It’s quite pleasant in a modern era to talk about the individual body working to be part of a broad “system,” quite a certain kind of pleasant American life to go to yoga classes and talk about letting go of anger and greed when I’ve got quite a well stocked kitchen at home, a home at all to stock.

How does the individual affect the system? By however small the action may be, an action that addresses not only the internal life of the body itself but shifts in all the various ways the body relates to the system of bodies, to the body of the planet itself and in each small relationship an entire universe is contained. If it’s true we’re in luck. “I hear voices underneath the road,” Donald Revell confides. “Whichever way I go I was once an ocean.”

It’s getting harder and harder for me to understand the actual universe. When I was a child in Jenpeg it was easy enough to consult the paper each morning to see which planets were in the sky, where we could point our telescopes to get a look at a nebula or a comet coming through. Sure, there was a little math involved, but just a little bit. My dad was ace with the equations and I learned pretty fast myself.

Later in high school and college when I tried to continue my study of astronomy I came up hard against higher math I couldn’t process. Algebra was always easy for me but it was the dizzying and shifting quality of the physical universe downloaded into the symbols of calculus that I could never parse.

Had I only stuck it out I would have learned the poetry is the same as math and that the physicists who are trying to explain the nature of the material universe are only dreaming about it and use all the same strategies as poets and philosophers. Now Stephen Hawking has explained that the long accepted notion of an “event horizon”—the boundary beyond which matter completely disappears and is unobservable and beyond the affect of the universe which lies outside it—is a fiction, impossible with our current understanding of quantum theory.

And what does Hawking put in its place? Something called the “apparent horizon,” a point at which matter is transformed but released. Though Hawking himself admits that this theory itself is only a stop-gap it still does have a magnificent implication: there may be no black holes. And if there aren’t black holes, then what is it that happens—(really: explain it to me)—to stars which collapse?

And the main reason it matters to me is always the same: what is it that happens not to awareness (which may just be a function of the biological brain) but to the soul when breath leaves the body? That's the ultimate "failure" of the body: to survive, to live past itself, to have any shot at all of self-knowledge and awareness.

Halberstam, whose critical interests lie in so called “low theory”—an examination of popular culture including animated films and screwball comedies—finds in these “small projects, micropolitics, hunches, whims, fancies” a way of explaining the larger and subversive ways that heteronormative culture works to perpetuate the interests of institutions of money and political power. In his work I understand how in its own way the entire universe, the material world, our own artistic productions whether a Shrek cartoon or Sponge Bob or the Andromeda Galaxy, provide ways of thinking about this unfathomable universe and learning more about ourselves.

And why does it not surprise me that physics took two thousand years to arrive at the very first line of Ovid: that “bodies change into other bodies,” that there is no event horizon, that everything is “apparent.”

Or as Donald Revell says:

Lake Michigan is Lake Michigan.
The fate of all beings is random and awful.

I have children out there. May some of them
Be lakes that climb into the sky and live.

Originally Published: January 29th, 2014

Poet, editor, and prose writer Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian descent. He received a BA and MA from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA from New York University. Ali’s poetry collections include The Far Mosque (2005), which won Alice James Books’ New...