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We had studied,
admired,
emulated them,
until, in our striving,
we had conquered all the lands that bordered ours,
and then the lands beyond these,
and those beyond those beyond those—
lands that their telescopes had never been able to reach,
so that, on our Empire
(not merely one sun but)
200 billion trillion suns
did not ever set.

And when—even when—we surpassed them,
they remained with us
(heart, mind, soul)
the objects of an
eternal compulsion.

The Romans, the Mongols, the British.

What were they to us?
Empires we had not conquered.

In 1953, a resident of that last empire had written:
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
Yes.

Gallingly.

On every land that we had conquered—
on every other land—
we had imprinted our
language, insignia, flag, and anthem.

But not on them.

From the Past—
that final foreign country—
we continued to accept imports:
books,
ideas,
artworks,
and artifacts,
to which a pitiless
tax was invariably applied,
so that, by the time they appeared in our harbors,
they were
wrinkled,
faded,
fragmented—
a diminution commensurate with the distance they had traveled.

But this tax,
levied on the Past’s own exports,
was not nearly so pitiless
as the one that
was imposed on ours.

This tax was infinite.

We could get nothing through.

“If I have seen further,” Isaac Newton wrote,
“it is by standing on
the shoulders of giants.”
We saw him writing that in 1675.
We observed it by standing on his shoulders.

And yet we could not get through.

The Romans, the Mongols, the British.
And Napoleon’s failed Empire, too,
foundering against the Russian winter;
from all of these,
we had learned.

To all,
we accorded
our love and our desire;
our misplaced adoration
and our terrible need.

Everything that a worshiper accords to an idol.

An idol we had never outgrown.

Wintertime,
combined with not enough time,
had ended Napoleon in Russia.
It had conquered him in space.
But what “winter” could continue to constrain us?

We, who possessed,
bright and hot,
so many suns:
200 billion trillion summers.

In them, illuminated,
(stars, stars, stars!)
we sensed the solution.
And we were right to.
But it was not, we came
to understand,
their light or their heat
that was important.

It was their mass.

On Newton’s shoulders
where we continued to
stand,
we sensed,
increasingly,
how everything bent to us:
looking down
(looking up)
we saw not
only his shoulders
but also beneath his chin,
under his feet,
inside his heart.

And yet we could not get through.

But as everything bent to us,
as space did
(and time)
we perceived this also:

A way to pay the infinite tax.

And, with it:
The most painful kind of choice.

From Napoleon, we had learned:
you cannot continue growing,
distanced from your heart.

Or your idols.

We choose.

We swarm into ports
that were not built to receive us,
using the Past’s own export vessels,
retrofitted to permit travel in reverse.

For only the price of
200 billion trillion suns.

At the same time, we convert
surveillance into invasion.
No longer do we stand
on their gigantic shoulders.
Instead, we rappel
down
them.

Let the stars belong to themselves.

And we are here, now and then and always.
We are with Napoleon in 1815
and with L. P. Hartley in 1953
and with Newton in 1675.
And while the band in the corner plays our anthem,
we discourse with them on the certainties of war.

In the streets, our flag waves,
where the British flag never did;
and our ships hover, where the
Mongol steeds never galloped,
never breathed;
and only our language is spoken,
where the Roman legions never were, never marched,
and where no sun—but only stars—ever set,
and no winter ever comes.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Or at least they used to.



Rachel Rodman’s work has appeared in Kaleidotrope, Dreams and Nightmares, Star*Line, and many other publications. She is also the author of two collections: Art Is Fleeting (Shanti Arts Press) and Exotic Meats + Inedible Objects (Madness Heart Press).
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