Just as the Cosmos is remarkable
 In its homogeneity, so life
 Surprises not in its variety,
 But similarities—a living world
 May neither be too close nor orbiting
 Too distant from its sun, must be rocky,
 Have water and a molten core’s enveloping
 Magnetosphere. Consider living worlds
 Like organisms, each convergently
 Evolving oxygen, a temperate climate
 And life. 
               And just as they're alike in their
 Constituent elements, the life arising
 Evolves alike—prokaryotic and
 Eukaryotic over billions of years
 Divided into plants and animals.
 The laws of evolution are not altered
 By time, locale or species. Anywhere
 There’s life there’s more that’s recognizable
 Than alien, more that universally
 Applies not just to life’s emergence but
 Also to sentience, intelligence
 And civilization, for in every world,
 Where though the sun is unfamiliar,
 Where night is visited by stranger tides
 And constellations, where though the byways
 And thoroughfares traverse implausible fields
 Under alien skies, you still will find
 The bicycle.
                    There are an infinite number
 Among as many worlds. The universe
 Is everywhere replete with life, some worlds
 Awash in microscopic biomes
 While others teem with wilderness; but where
 Intelligence and sentience evolve
 So does the necessary wheel and means 
 To turn the wheel: the chain, gears, frame and sprocket
 Both different and alike in their design—
 Blueprints of the physiology
 And minds inventing them. In any world
 Where there’s a child’s bicycle, there’s elsewhere
 In any quarter of the universe
 Another likewise trimmed with streamers, spangles
 And balanced on a kickstand.
                    Were it possible
 To bridge the light years with a bicycle
 By pedaling or by a sail affixed
 To catch the winds of other Milky Ways;
 Or to visit on a summer’s day
 An undiscovered world; to gaze at nightfall
 At nebulae; and were there, anchored
 To every handlebar, a telescope
 To navigate the air (and wine and blankets
 In every basket); then bicycles
 Would populate the intervening skies,
 Would coast like comets through the scattered stars
 And glitter in the light.
                    If on an evening
 You find a square of earth to unfold
 Your blanket and to gaze at constellations,
 You’ll see a thousand thousand worlds with life
 And yet see none. In every world you’ll see
 A thousand thousand bicycles and yet
 Not one. You’ll peer into another’s eyes,
 A billion intermittent years gone by,
 Whose gaze meets yours if only for an instant,
 Yet never know. 
                   Ride your bicycle
 The little while you can—and wait no more;
 Though a bicycle won’t ferry you
 Across the pathless oceans of the Cosmos,
 This poem has never only been about 
 The bicycle—but our imagination.
 The Universe is full of bicyclists
 Who dream of navigating, just like you,
 The same intractable distances,
 To view, if for a day, another moon,
 Another sun—and you. So little
 Are our allotted days, so impossible—
 The grandeur, the sublimity, the Universe;
 Let your imagination be the bicycle
 And what before had been beyond your reach
 Will be the passage of an afternoon.
 Will be the nebulae that fade like leaves
 Among worlds moving darkly and unseen;
 Will be the radiant whirlwinds birthing stars
 And stars new worlds. There will be life and bicycles
 And for a little while—yours. 
Bicycles by Me, Patrick Gillespie | February 14th 2021

This poem is one of two that Coleridge, who first created the genre, might have called an Essay Poem. Now that my novel is done, I’ve gotten back to working on long poems again, and a couple of short stories. Using the terminology of science in blank verse was an enjoyable challenge—and an experiment. I like to experiment in poetry. I suppose this is my contribution, in some sense, to the debate over what alien life might look like. One can find all sorts of wild speculation—often delighting in worlds teeming with life forms that are entirely unrecognizable, but I find that hard to square with the theory of evolution. The nooks and crannies that evolution will be filling on any given rocky planet are going to be all but identical to our own. And so convergent evolution kicks in. Perhaps the most well-known example of convergent evolution is called carcinisation or “crabification”. As one article writes, five groups of decapod crustaceans “evolved into crabs in five completely different contexts, giving rise to a meme that the long arc of history truly bends toward the crab.”

These are distinct species all evolving to fill the same niche and looking almost indistinguishable. So, if anything, there are probably more “crabs” in the universe than any other life form. What about sentient life? Could Octopi evolve into an advanced civilization? One stumbling block will be the “discovery” of electricity. The day any intelligent Octopi (or water-dwelling aliens) discover electricity will be the day they all float dead and electrocuted on the water’s surface. Dry land is the place for scientific advancement. And what will be the physiology of alien intelligence? The development of our brains was mutual with and coincided with the development of finger dexterity. That is, our intellectual capacity to invent tools relied on a pair of hands capable of manipulating those tools. Fat good that kind of intelligence would do a dog. So it’s my own opinion that the physiology of alien intelligence is going to have far more in common with us (than not) because we’re both filling the same evolutionary niche. But, anyhow, that’s the kind of thinking that inspired this poem. Hope you enjoyed it.

5 responses

  1. Thought provoking. I instantly thought of Ammons’ “In Memoriam Mae Noblitt”—and how Ammons could have used your bicycle to humanize his somewhat desolate cosmology:

    This is just a [bicycle]:
    we go around, distanced,
    yearly in a star’s

    atmosphere, turning
    daily into and out of
    direct light and

    slanting through the
    quadrant seasons: deep
    space begins at our

    [Pedals], nearly rousing
    us loose: we look up
    or out so high, sight’s

    silk almost draws us away:
    this is just a [bicycle]:
    currents worry themselves

    coiled and free in airs
    and oceans: water picks
    up mineral shadow and

    plasm into billions of
    designs, frames: trees,
    grains, bacteria: but

    is love a reality we
    made here ourselves—
    and grief—did we design

    that—or do these,
    like currents, whine
    in and out among us merely

    as we arrive and go:
    this is just a [bicycle]:
    the reality we agree with,

    that agrees with us,
    outbounding this, arrives
    to touch, joining with

    us from far away:
    our home which defines
    us is elsewhere but not

    so far away we have
    forgotten it:
    this is just a [bicycle].

    [we ride one life]

    These lines, however, should probably be deleted if not more implicit:

    My poem has never truly been about
    The bicycle—but your imagination.

    Let your imagination be the bicycle

    As they are they make me feel spoonfed


    • That’s okay. Not everyone will feel that way.

      I considered making it implicit but that would have changed the entire poem — made it more like Frost’s Birches. But there’s a larger implicit point that you seem to have missed; and I won’t go into it. My work ended with the poem, for better or worse. :)

      I’ve always thought that Ammons’s finest poem was:

      Their Sex Life

      One failure on
      Top of another


  2. Whatever I missed, the poem got my mind racing and made me want to write. And the last poet to have that effect was Yeats about a month ago.


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