A poster mounted on foam board stands atop my dresser, its black surface pierced by a million pinpricks. I have had this poster since high school. At night, the pinpricks shine dimly, filled with glow-in-the-dark chemicals worn out after twenty years. In daylight, or with the lamp lit, the pinpricks are gathered into shapes by white lines—outlines to make clearer the vague resemblance between groups of stars and the animals, figures, and objects we call constellations. The title of the poster, written into one corner, is “Map of the Universe: Northern Hemisphere.”
I thought of that map while reading A Phantom Zero by Ryu Ando. A Phantom Zero is a book-length work of poetry in eight sections, with each section taking its title from one of the variables of the Drake Equation, related to the search for extraterrestrial life. The Drake Equation lays out the major variables affecting the possible number of extraterrestrial civilizations capable of radio communication. A Phantom Zero takes the Drake Equation as an entry point to both the cosmos and the stories humanity tells about the cosmos. Like that map on my dresser, these lines of verse contain multiple views of the stars, each view nearly written on top of the previous.
A Phantom Zero is Ando’s second book, after 2016’s Lost Gardens of the Hakudo Maru, and contains many similarities to the previous collection. The title work of Lost Gardens of the Hakudo Maru also concerned itself with the stars and with the search for Contact (capitalized in both works). “Seasons of the Ginzakura,” from the earlier collection, is also structured around an equation—in its case, the equation for how much energy is released when uranium-235 undergoes fission. In both that work and A Phantom Zero, the equation in question comes in and out of focus throughout the work, sometimes as foreground, sometimes as background. For A Phantom Zero, the Drake Equation gives the work a circular structure. The conclusion comes first: the first section of the poem reads, “Let N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible.” The other seven sections follow the variables that contribute to that starting premise, from the rate of star and planet formation to the length of time a civilization might send radio signals into space. Each of those variables brings us closer to the N that started the poem, throwing us back to the beginning as we reach the end. (This starting section is titled “The Drum Star (Orion’s Ghost),” under which title it was published in Strange Horizons in 2017.)
Like that circular structure, one of the central images of the work is the circle, which appears as the orbits of stars and planets and the zero of the title. The Drake Equation does not have a set answer—for many of the contributing variables we have at best wild guesses rooted in scientific assumptions and hypotheses—but the equation is haunted by the possibility that there are no other civilizations in the galaxy with which we can communicate. A zero. In an interview included as an afterword, Ando explains for those readers who do not know kanji (including myself) that the title is built on a play in meaning: the word “rei” means either zero or ghost, depending on which kanji is used. The poem incorporates these dual meanings through zeroes and phantoms, absences and hauntings. It says:
Perhaps it is a lost
And meaningless number
That we seek,
Like a phantom
Zero (p. 28)
These lines layer meaning over the unknown answer to the Drake Equation, with words that seem like synonyms because they negate what is sought. But they are actually distinct. Is the answer lost to us? Or is it meaningless? Is it a ghost, which manages to be both absent and present at once? The poem looks at the Drake Equation not from the perspective of whether it has an answer—whether it is none or many—but rather by examining the seeker. What are we looking for, when we set out to find other civilizations?
The poem is skeptical of that search. In particular, as Ando has done in poems elsewhere, A Phantom Zero draws attention to the human tendency to write ourselves onto the nonhuman. The poem says:
Our stories bind us
To the stars (p. 8)
These lines appear in a subsection whose title references the Tenmon Bun’ya No Zu, an early star chart from Japan. The map on my dresser is a clear descendant of the Tenmon Bun’ya No Zu and similar star charts, with their circular view of the heavens, constellations drawn like a cosmic connect-the-dots, and the cycles of zodiacs highlighted in contrasting color. The constellations are a clear way that our stories “bind us to the stars,” but they are not the only one. A few pages later, in a devastating series of lines, the poem describes the destruction of the earth:
We fill these rivers
With blood-seeds and kill-spawn
This destruction then leads to a desperate upward gaze:
Speak of new lands un-blighted
-Full of the same milk and honey,
Full of the same H20 and DNA-
But dying in a tiny corner of the sky,
Untouched. (p. 13)
These lines evoke our current and past destruction of the earth, which hurtle us toward a future where the earth is no longer inhabitable. Against this backdrop, one of the stories we write upon the stars is of a new home, waiting for us in the skies. (I am reminded of SpaceX, and billionaires pouring money into Mars colonization.)
The poem does not look kindly on the search in the stars for a land of milk and honey. This seizing upon the skies to replace the earth is not only to abandon the lands we have blighted, it is also a desperate bid to escape death, and therefore doomed to failure. Death is contained in the imagined destination—those lands “dying in a tiny corner of the sky.” In fact, death trembles in every line of A Phantom Zero, as the poem moves beyond our stories to make an attempt at looking clearly at the stars.
Death here is not about the dangers of space to humanity, but rather the greater existential deaths of time. The second section, “R*: The R*umblings of Corrosion (Let R*=the average rate of star formation in our galaxy),” places the tendrils and forces of stars—of life—within the vastness of time, in which everything eventually dies. As the poem calls it, “the killing fields of time” (21). A Phantom Zero is at its strongest in the sections like this, where Ando grapples with putting into words cosmic workings far beyond human understanding. The weight of the cosmos almost breaks the poem’s lines with the struggle to make concrete what is hopelessly abstract. The lines stair-step up and down the page, rarely holding a full sentence or phrase on a single line, which gives the impression of a poem groping forward, reaching for the right word or right phrase to finally reveal the universe clearly.
Suns are born
In this quavering of time,
And they die as
Cold and numb as
The years spent waning
On that infinite plain. (p. 20)
This description of the birth and death of suns, of stars, shifts back and forth across the page. “Cold and numb” is placed far to the right, almost like a whispered insertion. Here, too, one can see the grappling with time, which we experience as abstract, and the attempt to give it a concreteness: a “quavering,” an “infinite plain.”
This grappling for words is made evident in the poem through the presence of the writer, which emerges as a “you” in the first section (p. 11) and an “I” by the end (p. 54). The writing of the poem is described by the poem itself, in a meta-textual turn:
The dip and quaff of the pen-scratch
Releases the twisted
From their torments,
A resurrection in writhing
Leafless thoughts. (p. 49)
The “twisted” may be the seekers and the poets, referenced at the beginning of the same page, or it may refer to the writer’s fingers “twisting upon themselves.” Either way, these lines describe a release brought about by the writing itself.
This release echoes the movement of the poem from “There is no peace here” (p. 10) in the early pages to the appearance of peace by the end:
One beautiful, fine day)
Within this verse (p. 58)
This movement, from no peace to peace, is the movement that I struggled with the most. Even the tentative peace of those final lines (not necessarily peace now, but peace one day) felt unearned after the time-death of stars and the vagaries of civilizations kept apart by time. The peace at the end is not entirely unprecedented. It is linked to several repeating elements in the poem: the repetition of the Heart Sutra (“form is emptiness, emptiness form”) from Buddhism, the repeated references to awakening (which also seem linked to Buddhism), and imagery that turns the search back on the seeker—mirrors, recursive windows, loops, circles. The search outward leads back inward, perhaps toward enlightenment (awakening) and thus the tentative peace at the end.
The beginning of A Phantom Zero tells us where we are going: “Look inward to sky and heaven” (p. 8). There are two ways to read this. In one, the boundaries of the self are broken down to expand into the universe. In the other, the universe shrinks to be held within the boundaries of the self. The distinction is important to me, because the solipsism of the latter leads to an inability to recognize anything but the self. Lost Gardens of the Hakudo Maru included a similar turn—the search outward leading inward—but in that work, the self was more clearly dismantled by the search. A Phantom Zero does not as obviously dismantle the self, and so I felt poised between the two, the inward turn undoing the attempt to take seriously the smallness of humanity within time and the cosmos.
But then the poem turns again. Its ending returns to the beginning, to brilliantly alienating descriptions of the inhuman cosmos, to dark pockets and quavering suns on the infinite plain. These descriptions offer a keen clarity beyond any star map.