Daniel Tobin

from “From Nothing”
November 13, 2011 Tobin Daniel

from “From Nothing”


Georges Lamaitre (1894-1966) was a Belgian mathematician, theoretical physicist, and Jesuit priest whose insights during the 1930s and 1940s provided solutions to physical problems stemming from Einstein’s general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics that Einstein himself did not foresee. Though a lesser-known figure in cosmology, he was the first to develop a theory of an expanding universe through the explosion of a “primeval atom,” what has become known popularly as “the big bang.”


One note, another, in the parlor’s angled light,

your fingers flaring to the keys, the waiting clavier,

its felt hammers striking strings, resonant frequency


borne from score to bridge to sounding board,

coupling every gradient of energy into air.

So your moments fill with the shapeliness of song


here in the safe flat beside the Town Hall, its façade

a medieval choreography of burghers, saints,

secular cathedral, while the Reich’s page turners


goose-step through your streets. You saw, advancing,

this second coming, the library atLouvainagain

a torched sanctum, melted webs of steel, charred cocoon.


You’d have made your way to the coast,Pas de Calais,

and across the channel, father, mother in tow,

would have beaten to the pass the panzers atDunkirk


that turned you back and locked you in retreat.

In Princeton Einstein has written his letter, his fear

of atoms concerted to bombs by German hands,


the President in seclusion committing the secret funds.

Now this bright November sun of Berchtesgarden,

the neutral king portioning his pact with Hitler.


Is there a providence at the heart of quantum chance,

the risk of the Pianist whose score evolves the keys?

Point and purpose hazarded on scales across scales.




Now in earshot of you—the scale that shatters scales:

50 freight cars x 50 per car x 1.5 trains per day

x 1066 days = 4,000,000 Jews “resettled to the East”


exclusive of the death squads, and each one eclipsed

behind the death gate’s limit, its prevailing West,

and Himmler petitioning the Minister of Transport


“I must have more trains,” among them cattle cars

out ofBrussels, out ofAntwerpvia Breendonck

andMalines—your seminary within hailing distance


of the moated barracks where Öbersturnfuhrer Asche

assembled them for Auschwitz, Berkinau,Bergen-Belsen–

Asche to ash along the side line track throughLouvain.


That fall afternoon, your father collapses on a tram

and the one who sits beside him wears a yellow star.

We have the duty of conscience to strive for resistance


declares His Holiness Van Roey, and you, good son

charged to attend your mother, leaven act with prayer

like an untestable theorem, listening into the vacuum.


But to see the singularity in a sphere composed of dust,

to see beyond the given limit to the horizon where light

plunges permanently into the void—your “dust solution”


by which space and time contract to nil—how to reconcile

the math when the metaphor waxes real, gravity and graves,

cinder clouds, a calculus of stars red shifting on the rails?




Sunflower plumage, the pulsing body alive with song:

the Pope’s canary, perched ex cathedra on his shoulder,

sings nothing of what is past, or passing, or to come.


Gretchen, his favorite, freed from her cage, keeps vigil

there, while Pius, rail-thin, pallid as a plaster saint,

eats alone according to his habit, the staunch observance


of his solitude, that lifted gaze for which he is revered.

Scholar, classicist, holy man, bureaucrat, former nuncio

to the Reich, invoker of conclaves and concordats—


should he speak the word that utters condemnation

to the bestial, the antichrist? –and him the Vicar of Christ

caught in the inertia of his prudence, his well-meant


action at a distance that would preserve his own tribe,

or risk the fury, martyrdom, His Church a shambles?

The laws which bind civilized people together


have been violated, he broadcasts on Christmas,

his rhetoric a dark wood veiling Buchenwald,

his telegrams to Hitler, his silence at the roundups


nearVaticanwalls—culpability caught by hindsight,

the encyclical denouncing hate shelved for diplomacy.

In the photograph you look up at him, your pontiff,


as he welcomes you, open, obedient, to his throne.

And had he donned the yellow star? History’s “What if.”

O golden haired Margaret, O ashen haired Shulamith.




And so, let the mind commit a thought experiment,

split the physicist from priest like a single photon

shot through a screen, charting the divergent paths:


–“Consider a civilization where music is unknown,

only acoustics and frequencies, the notes like an air

un-breathable for the animal in its element.


Is this not where our method leads us, into matter

as matter, force as force, the amplitudes a blank smoke

unnecessary—number as number and nothing more?”


–“Infinity is such an artistic creation, all symmetry

and elegance, but your method smacks of metaphysics,

lifeless life, and the bible is not a textbook of science.


If relativity theory had been necessary to salvation

it would have been revealed toSt. Paulor Moses.

Still, the deeper we penetrate the universal mystery


The more we will find one law and one goodness.”

–“Newton’s Principia, Abbe Mendel and his peas,

from quantum to quanta—all purposeless process.”


–“Time’s arrow at t=0 has a barb at each end

that makes the infinite universe a buried corpse.

Our world is now a world where something happens,


with the world’s matter present from the beginning,

with the world’s story to be written step by step.”

–“In venom, crematoria, the animal’s voided blood.”

Daniel Tobin is the author of seven books of poems, most recently Belated Heavens (winner of the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry), The Net, and From Nothing, as well as the critical studies Passage to the Center and Awake in America: On Irish-American Poetry.  He is the editor of The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Light in Hand: Selected Early Poems of Lola RidgePoet’s Work, Poet’s Play and The Collected Early Poems of Lola Ridge (Spring 2017). His awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.