# ‘Oumuamua, SETI, and the media

Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the chair of the astronomy department at Harvard, a distinguished and well cited astronomer (he has an h-index of 87), and the chair of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative He’s a strong proponent of making sure that science doesn’t succumb to groupthink and champion of outré ideas.

He also has been making headlines recently for articles he has co-authored, interviews he has given, and popular media columns he has written about the possibility that fast radio bursts, and now ‘Oumuamua, are artificial in origin. This has created a great deal of buzz in popular culture and a lot of hand-wringing and criticism on social media by scientists who find his actions irresponsible. Many have asked my opinion, so I’m collecting my many thoughts on the topic in this post.

I am happy to defend Avi on these grounds:

• He is driving us to have an important conversation about what “acceptable” SETI research looks like, and in this conversation I’m mostly on his side. He’s essentially moving the scientific equivalent of the “Overton Window” towards SETI, and that’s a good thing. These are exciting and interesting questions and we should not let the face-on-Mars/Ancient-Aliens/UFOlogy types prevent us from discussing them.
• He is using tenure and his stature the way we all imagine it’s supposed to be used: as a shield so that he can explore potentially unpopular research avenues without fear of retribution or ostracism. We all imagine that’s what we would do in his position (I hope!) but too often it ends up just being a club to get junior scientists to conform to one’s vision for what “proper” science looks like and what “good” problems are.
• The papers he and his postdocs are writing are important first steps in making Solar System and other forms of SETI a serious academic discipline.
• He is being a role model for how scientists can explore outré ideas and spend an appropriate amount of their time on potential breakthroughs.
• He is putting SETI in the public eye and doing a lot of outreach.

Avi wouldn’t be pushing the envelope hard enough if he weren’t getting some pushback, and indeed there is plenty of fair and good-faith criticism that can be made about his approach (not all of which I agree with):

• The degree of certainty he expresses in ‘Oumuamua being artificial does seem unwarranted to me (though to be fair I’ve always been an ‘Oumuamua-might-be-artificial skeptic.)
• Given the way we know the press (especially the yellow press) will handle any story about “aliens”, one can argue that the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” maxim is especially applicable to SETI (I’ve made this argument strongly when discussing my own research in the press.) Avi could hew more closely to this maxim.
• The tone of his papers and his public comments are quite divergent. The body of the paper on ‘Oumuamua-as-lightsail, for instance, has a brief mention about the potential of the artifice of ‘Oumuamua at the end, but most of it is about the perfectly general problem of thin objects in interstellar space. Snopes highlights this divergence well pointing out that the paper is quite sober and restrained compared to some of the media coverage. (It’s true that the title and abstract of the paper are about ‘Oumuamua specifically, and that it serves as the case study for the whole analysis.) Avi’s public statements are much less conservative and equivocal.
• He is not just quietly following the evidence; he is using his platform to have a very public and high-visibility discussion about his research. I will concede that Avi is an exception to my earlier (somewhat petulant) protest that SETI scientists are not in it for the attention. That said, I will object to anyone who would claim Avi is only in it for the attention, or that such attention is inherently a bad thing.
• Many of his papers are de novo explorations of topics like the fate of comets in interstellar space, with little connection to the substantial amounts of work that has already been done on the topic, and his papers would be better and less naive if they had a closer connection to this prior work rather than starting from scratch.

Bryan makes the rather Popperian argument that if your model is too flexible then it can’t be falsified, so you’re not doing science.  The implication is that since we don’t have a good model for aliens, we can always play the “aliens of the gaps” game and so SETI isn’t good science unless it’s looking for unambiguously artificial signals like narrow-band radio waves.

This argument isn’t as tight as it seems. Most interesting new theories start without concrete predictions—General Relativity was so hard to use that even Einstein wasn’t sure what it predicted (he got the deflection of starlight wrong the first time he calculated it; he wrote a paper saying gravitational waves don’t exist). Theories don’t spring fully-formed from theorists’ heads; many important breakthroughs start with something less than quantitative or precise (“maybe we need to modify gravity”; “maybe there is a new subatomic particle involved”) and let the data guide the theories’ details.

This is the normal progression of science. SETI is no different, and so no less scientific.

Then there is this one, by Eric Mamajek, which I mostly agree with:

It’s mostly fine through tweet #9, but then he conflates things in the last tweet using an unwarranted leap of logic.

Up until then he had been criticizing the Holmesian logic of how ‘Oumuamua must be alien because we had ruled out natural explanations. I quite agree with him.

But in the last tweet he jumps to criticizing even bringing up the hypothesis of ETI’s in general, implying that scientists who do are pulling a Giorgio Tsoukalos. (There’s also the assertion at the end such anomalies will “inevitably” turn out to be not just natural, but mundane which is obviously not strictly true.)

But Tabby and I weren’t pulling a Tsoukalos when we submitted our proposal with Andrew Siemion to NRAO to study Tabby’s Star. We really weren’t. I have clarified the actual events with Eric, so I’m pretty sure that’s not what he meant to imply here, but that is how this tweet reads.

Bryan makes a similar (but softer) implication in his final tweets:

We all would! Indeed, it was Avi Loeb who made the suggestion that Breakthrough Listen point Green Bank at ‘Oumuamua because he understands very well that the proof of alien technology is something like the bullets on Bryan’s list.

But the implications of these tweets aren’t just wrong, they’re harmful to the field of SETI. A very plausible path to SETI success will be that we will see something strange (not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny…” as the old fortune quip goes) and eventually, after lots of follow up, we might find the smoking gun, or perhaps it will just end up being a proof by exclusion.  As I wrote in 2014:

Artifact SETI can thus proceed by seeking phenomena that appear outside the range that one would expect natural mechanisms to produce. Such phenomena are inherently scientifically interesting, and worthy of further study by virtue of their extreme nature. The path from the detection of a strange object to the certain discovery of alien life is then one of exclusion of all possible naturalistic origins. While such a path might be quite long, and potentially never-ending, it may be the best we can do.

Communication SETI, on the other hand, shortcuts this path to discovery by seeking signals of such obviously engineered and intelligent origin that no naturalistic explanation could be valid. Together, artifact and communication SETI thus provide us with complementary tools: the most suspicious targets revealed by artifact SETI provide the likeliest targets for communication SETI programs that otherwise must cast an impossibly wide net, and communication SETI might provide conclusive evidence that an extreme but still potentially naturalistic source is in fact the product of extraterrestrial intelligence (Bradbury et al. 2011).

Bryan’s thread and Eric’s final tweet could easily be read to foreclose this sort of research, essentially saying “it’s not worth thinking about the aliens hypothesis until it’s so unavoidable that you’ll get no flak for it” (radio signals à la Contact, the proverbial saucer on the White House lawn, etc.). They certainly make it clear that they won’t hesitate to chastise you on Twitter for going down this road.

But if we want to get to the end of that road, we’ve got to start walking down it at some point, and when the media very reasonably asks what we’re doing so they can report on it to a very understandably curious public, we should be allowed to answer their questions without having our motives (or scientific credibility) questioned by our peers.

In short: your mileage may vary on Avi’s particular style of public communication and conclusions on ‘Oumuamua, but when making your critique please be mindful that you are not slamming the whole endeavor. SETI as a serious science will make hypotheses, explore anomalies, and discuss the possibility of alien technology as the cause, and we need to be able to do so without obloquy from our peers, and without them policing which kinds of SETI we’re “allowed” to work on or talk about in public.

If I seem touchy about this, it’s actually not because I’m smarting from these Twitter threads or anything like that (which I don’t actually disagree with much—in particular I’m friends with Eric and I know I have his respect). As I wrote at the top, I’m glad we’re having this conversation and I hope it continues!

But another purpose of this post is that Avi and I (and other SETI researchers) have advisees that work on SETI and these sorts of messages are not lost on them: these tweets imply that senior people in your field will disapprove of you because of the topic of your research, and they will police what you’re allowed to say to the press, regardless of how good a scientist you are. Keep in mind, “Avi’s” paper on ‘Oumuamua that is being criticized has a postdoc as first author.

So in closing: I pledge to keep the SETI real and well grounded in science, to be responsible in my interactions with the media about it, and to train my students to do the same.

And, I hope my peers will pledge to create a welcoming environment for my advisees as SETI (hopefully!) comes back into the astronomy fold (even when—especially when—they are complaining about Avi).

# AstroWright Group and NEID science at #AAS233

Good morning!  Here are some abstracts at the 233rd meeting of the AAS to be sure to grab:

## Talks:

2pm-3:30pm Room 305: Special splinter session for NEID! Come hear all about this new facility precise RV instrument for the community.

## Posters:

140.27: Mark Giovinazzi of Penn presents his work with Cullen Blake on the characterization and operation of the gigantic NEID CCDs.

140.28: See my poster on the science we’ll do with our Guaranteed Time for Observations with NEID

146.02: Come see Emily Lubar’s work on the design and performance of NEID’s amazing, state-of-the-art environmental control system.

9:15am and all day:

Come to the Technosignatures Decadal Writing Workshop in room 202!

See how you can:

• co-sign a technosignatures white paper
• contribute to a technosignatures white paper
• find co-signers for your white paper
• find new science cases for your white paper
• recommend citations to your white paper

Kickoff meeting is at 9:15am after the plenaries.

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael’s understanding of the female half of the human species was shaped by competing forces. He was very close with the women in his family—his mother and his sisters. It is because of that close family bond with my mother that we came to live with him, and that his sister Vanessa lived in the mother-in-law apartment in the Provincetown house for years.

Michael and his sisters

He had great esteem for many of his women colleagues, and there were plenty of women academics, writers, and artists he admired. The political and social alliances between gay men and lesbians are complex, especially in a gay mecca like Provincetown, but he always respected lesbian activists and recognized and appreciated their common cause for equality and justice—he was the one who taught me about the Frank Kameny/Barbara Gittings partnership as an effective template for gay rights.

But his closest friends and his lovers were all men, and this meant that many aspects of women remained mysterious to him. For instance, after I started seriously dating it became clear to me that his understanding of even basic facts of women’s biology was comically underdeveloped, an ignorance which he apparently never had any particular interest in remediating.

Michael’s mother Val started showing signs of Alzheimer’s in the ’80s, and by the time we arrived in Boston it was getting obvious. She developed emphysema from a lifetime of smoking, and she had to be hospitalized for a heart condition shortly after we arrived. Alzheimer’s is a fatal illness, but despite it and all of her medical conditions she hung on until finally succumbing at age 78 in 2001, 5 years after Cape Cod Light was published and almost a year after Van died of congestive heart failure at 84.

Michael with his mother and sisters

The nineteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is Lady. The title, the reference to Lot’s wife, the phrase “across the Atlantic”, and the sense of a women losing herself make my mother and I suspect it is about Valerie. “He would have liked calling her a lady,” says Mom.

You say: you are coming apart like an old doll,
Cards scattering across the Atlantic.
We say: you are sticking and spilling on things
And rush together to preserve some surface,
But as surely another drips
Off a counter or down the drain.
What mouth is opening, what words
Like musical notes might emerge
To evaporate some cherished piece
Of furniture, or melt
The entire poised figure
Like water hitting a statue made of salt.

The Seal Pond, a drawing by John Andert. Photo by Bret Duback.

# Facing The Season

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael always had a Christmas tree, always invited us all up for a Christmas gathering. We would spend Christmas Eve distracted with anticipation, and Christmas Day mastering the video games we had gotten under the tree. Christmas morning, one person would get the hat and play “Santa,” passing out the gifts agonizingly slowly so we could all appreciate each one as they were opened.

Christmas at the house in Provincetown. Valerie (Michael’s mother) is laughing. That miiiight be me in the lower left sporting the mullet.

The grownups, I now realize, had a similar relationship with it all. It isn’t all fun and games when you have to erect and trim the tree, cook the food, clean the house, and so on. But especially when life is dealing you a bad hand in the background, it’s wonderful when you finally get to the good parts: that moment distant family walks through the door, sitting around the fire playing games, telling stories, singing, laughing.

The eighteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is Facing the Season, and it features my younger brother Aaron delivering containing the most quoted phrase in the book within our family: “knock me over the head” to get across to the good times.

Michael celebrating the season at his Provincetown house with his father Van, a somewhat less enthusiastic vocalist than Michael. If I had to guess, I’d say Michael is hamming up some especially religious Christmas carol playing on the CD player.

# Facing the Season

The leaves are flying backwards like dead birds.
I could tune in “Morning in America”
But if I picked that up I’d crack.
Overnight a huge green object
Reared itself in our living room
Forecasting family, heavy lifting, and snow.
Last Christmas Eve
As we were hanging the stockings in our conspiracy
Aaron, twelve, said
“I wish you could knock me over the head
So I could come to and it would be Christmas.”
That’s how it is
Getting across to the good times, knock me over the head.

The next poem is here.

# Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M.

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael was a political junkie and a weather junkie. He obsessively tracked elections and Atlantic storms on cable TV with the same enthusiasm, switching between the Weather Channel and CNN. During the day he could take the pulse of the atmosphere from the balconies of his house, overlooking Cape Cod Bay in one direction and the Atlantic in the other; and by night he would take the pulse of the polis at the Atlantic house and Commercial Street.

Michael enjoying a storm at the beach (I would guess Herring Cove) while his photographer and ride stays dry.

In 1991, Hurricane Bob was heading straight for Cape Cod. Most residents that were able heeded the warnings, boarded up, and evacuated. When it was clear Bob would be a direct hit on Provincetown, we got the call from Michael: if you leave Boston now, you can probably make it across the bridge before they close it, and be here in time for the main event.

So of course we showed up.

Hurricane Bob, 1991
Left to right: Me, Justin, my mother Victoria, Michael (top), Aaron (front), David, Vanessa. This photograph appears in Cape Cod Light after “Facing the Season”, but it belongs here.

Michael loved elections, he reveled in the Clinton victories; he was reinvigorated by Obama’s mandate. He longed for the political renewals they promised.

For my money, the seventeenth poem in Cape Cod LightProvincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M., is the masterpiece of the book. Its dramatic, sincere optimism is something America could use right now.

# Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M.

Tonight I awoke, unexpectedly,
To a rainstorm turning suddenly to snow:
Not the typical transition
From sleep to remembered dreaming,
From vague, lofty possessions
To embarrassing distortions of yesterday,
Then to a reluctant acceptance of morning,
But to a bold stand.

I think it was Keats,
How the sea was a revelation
Banging against the rocky chambers at Margate
Rather than whispering as it does here,
Rising silently, stealing buildings, seeping through the sand.

Everything comes back:
The poets that haunted me in my youth,
The struggle for sensation,
The hard work of friendship,
Worry attaching itself to trivia,
The achievements: lover, family, home.

All was of a piece.
Suddenly, the language wasn’t exhausted.
So many things that cried out for poetry
That must be incorporated, or we die.

Some of religion’s strict fantasies have caught up with us
In daily life, even
As we’ve become more comfortable without it,
Because pestilence has gilded our hours.

The wind has turned,
Southwest to north, and a depression
Struggles to form over Nantucket.
I root for it.

I long for a great storm
To move majestically into the gulf of Maine and stall,
Bludgeoning us with wall on wall of snow,
Transforming the dunes into a whitescape,
Making the day new.

Upstairs, my loved one sleeps.
History haunts him
With the inevitable success
Of a movie villain with metal fingers.

There may be too much to absorb.
I fear the snow will subside to drizzle.
But if we can fill every rift with ore, and
Fight the insistence to refuse meaning
Who’s to say we can’t take the century by the throat?

Ordinary Provincetown Winter Street by Bret Duback

The next poem is here.

# David’s Day

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

We’re arrived at the emotional core of the book, the most autobiographical parts, the ones that remind us most of life with Michael and David.

He was Uncle David as long as I can remember, long before we moved to Boston.

David (top), me (left), Michael, Aaron (goofy), and Justin (right) in my grandparents’ apartment.

David was diagnosed with AIDS around the time we moved to the East Coast and into their Brookline apartment until we got our own place. He had been HIV positive for many years without knowing it, since before he and Michael got together.

They soon relocated to the Cape house in Provincetown, where David worked remotely and Michael spent long weekends around his teaching duties at Harvard (Michael stayed in our spare bedroom during the week.)

Michael and David during a birthday celebration for Michael at the Provincetown house.

The drive to P-town for Christmas, Thanksgiving, or just a long weekend became a regular feature of our lives. David’s illness fell into the background after he recovered from his initial bout with opportunistic infections.

For a few years, life was “normal”; and we began to associate trips to the Cape with endless games, feasts, family and fun.

Bret DuBack, Michael, and David in the kitchen in Provincetown.

The sixteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is David’s Day, and it was written during this period.

# David’s Day

Once the inevitable happened
And we got through the first life-or-death weeks
We stepped back, and began adjusting
To the evil angel lurking constantly over our shoulders.
For a full year
The recovery began with mania,
When household chores weren’t too much for you,
And you needed a project a day to keep you sane.
Games became crucial, and we turned weekends into festivals:
Bridge and Pictionary,
Trivial Pursuit, Dr. Mario, and Balderdash,
Christmas for twelve and Thanksgiving for twenty-seven,
All recorded on videotape. This is the third year
To see you plump and strong, wrestling
With the ordinary tasks of daily life
Reminds me of times that will come again:
The endless evenings a breath away from death at the hospital,
The trembling, step-by-step recoveries, leashed to an I.V.,
The fainting into a lug of flesh down the long stairs.
Your immune count is four, down from twelve hundred.
We worry in person and by phone over your rashes and your vision.
We organize our lives around this illness,
And we play. We play. We play.

The next poem is here.

# How It Returned: Tripping In Vinnie’s Garden

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael’s drug of choice was the cigarette; he was a chain smoker and I can’t help but think that his was one of the many lives saved by flame-retardant furniture. Later, especially after David died, he added the screwdriver to his regular diet.

It all eventually caught up with him, but to some degree that was intentional: he always appreciated Mick Jagger’s notorious line about rather being dead than sing “Satisfaction” when he’s 40, and, unlike Jagger, I think Michael meant it. He watched his parents get old and die and I think he never wanted any part of it.

The core of the “Fern Circle Bridge Club” (as they called themselves) in the basement of my grandparents’ house. Michael is in the lower left, his sister Vanessa has the cat, my mother is in black on the right, my father David is in white at the bottom. Beverly Boehmke is in the center; Gary Oleski is to her left, Larry Gill is behind her, and Eric Dautel is back right. The phosphorescent paintings on the back wall lit up under black light.

Michael was no stranger to the other drugs, though, and was certainly a fan of pot. Being a poetic child of the 60’s, I suppose he was obligated to write about one of his trips.

The fifteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is How It Returned: Tripping In Vinnie’s Garden. Vinnie was a friend of Michael and Nessa’s in Provincetown. Bret Duback, who would have been right there tripping with him, tells me the poem was probably written either in the late ’70’s or mid ’80’s.

# How It Returned: Tripping In Vinnie’s Garden

What they stirred into the wine
And poured into beakers on the oak table
Was so we might not be lost to them
Living in disguise in their own world.

The stone ducks on the lawn
Preserved someone’s idea
Of grace under pressure; lying down
Among them I was a picture nobody took.
The furniture of earth and sky encompassed me.
Something stopped. It was
Orchestrating itself, and watching.

Just when I thought I was revised
They retrieved me, merely by being themselves.
My resentment was nothing personal;
What permanence, after all, had they displaced:
The pigments of faces assembling in the dusk
Looming down towards me, like moons.

The next poem is here.

# Changing in Place

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael took a few years off of graduate school at Yale to get out of his bubble. After serving two years as an orderly and counselor at a psychiatric institute working with heroine addicts, he decided to see the world. So he booked a flight to Hawaii, then to Tahiti, then to New Zealand, and then he backpacked his way westward at his own pace, spending weeks or months at a time in Bali, Java, Singapore, Nepal, India, Iran, and many points in between.

Michael on his trip around the world, presumably somewhere between India and Greece based on the locations depicted in other photos in this part of his photo album. Perhaps someone can identify the language of the graffiti on that wall?

Eventually his sister Vanessa joined him in Turkey, and my mother joined them in Greece. Michael became very ill from his journeys and flew home. But my mother stayed on and worked their way to France with Vanessa, before returning home to New Haven (my aunt Vanessa fell in love in and with France and wold not move back stateside for many years).

So much of Michael’s worldview is literal, coming from his well-earned views of much of the world.

The fourteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is Changing in Place. Its five aphorisms provide a nice summary of Michael’s perspective on life and relationships, which has a sort of “Eastern”, dissociative quality to them. They are good words to live by.

# Changing in Place

If it lives on the edge let it fall.
Even a piece of yourself
Can crash to the pavement without permanent loss.

If it seeks the depths, let it sink.
Even an old conviction
Can be cut off your neck like an albatross.

If it dies to be with you let it die.
You didn’t pledge
To play your part in someone else’s scheme.

If you cease to believe let it go.
You didn’t lie
To preserve the pretender who conceived the dream.

If you love, let it be.
Let it destroy what you were:
Productive, lonely, warped, false, free.

The next poem is here.

# Parkway

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael, in his Mick Jagger doppelganger phase while teaching at Muhlenberg

After graduating from Yale in 1976, Michael taught English for 6 years at Muhlenberg College in Eastern Pennsylvania, about an hour north of his undergraduate alma mater, Swarthmore. In the Muhlenberg yearbook the students said of the English department “Hattersley: original, challenging, and much more.”

In 1979 he founded the Valley Arts Council, becoming a “town and gown” bridge and cultivating the arts in the Lehigh Valley area (I think it still exists).

Michael aways always a teacher. After leaving Muhlenberg he spent two years in New York City working in business communications before ending up in Cambridge, MA teaching at Harvard Business School.

Michael was always a poet. I suspect Parkway, the thirteenth poem in Cape Cod Light, is one of the oldest poems in the collection. Quite the opposite of the previous poem, is a straightforward idyll, probably written in his Muhlenberg days, about a rainy day on the Little Lehigh Creek.

From the Muhlenberg yearbook

# Parkway

On wet wings; the earnest birds
Brake, settle, fold themselves
Into the water. Floating limbs
Bump the margin of fat leaves.
Someone has planted these steps
Down to the Little Lehigh River.

The depression that built these parks
Bloomed in the slow care
Stone was shaped to stone.
Old fishermen keep their eyes
On the ripples. Young ones
Smoke by poles propped on the bank.

The river carves out an island:
Bent pine, syringa, forked grass.
People gather. Some vanish
Into the woods. Squirrels scatter.
The voices of the children
Have been driven away by this rain.

The cloudy light at nightfall
And the sound of friends
Coming back from the storm
Mingle at the island’s end
As a bat flaps slowly
Out of the window.

The next poem is here.

# Like the Unfinished Souls in da Vinci’s Adoration

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Many of Michael’s poems are obviously autobiographical, if not about actual events or people then about real places in his life. That has let me use them to riff on elements of his biography and character.

The twelfth poem in Cape Cod LightLike the Unfinished Souls in da Vinci’s Adoration, is not one of those poems. It is more modern than his other poems, with a shifting, dream-like quality. The full title of the da Vinci work it references is Adoration of the Magi, an unfinished painting in the Uffizi.

The paining uses true perspective, with a vanishing point on the horizon, and combines many scenes in a single work, including a battle in the background. It is extraordinary in its presaging of many elements of modern art, including the Escher-esque staircases in the background and the unnatural coloring (blue trees!).

I presume Michael saw Adoration on one of his visits to Italy. The poem seems to be a walk through the painting: wandering the “back alleys,” witnessing the luminescent veneer lain down, visiting the “hunched pedestrians” and “cornices.” This journey has metaphorical significance: you are guided, your course “charted like the future we reject”; “strategy is required,”, until finally nightfall surprises you.  Perhaps it is you, the reader, that are like da Vinci’s unfinished souls, trying to discern meaning and plan your future amid beauty, complexity, and fate.

Michael at the Colosseum in Rome

[Note: I made one alteration to the poem: The word alleys in the first stanza rendered allies in the book, which I think must be a typographical error. “Back allies” does not make sense in context, and although I suppose he could be using the very rare variant of the plural of alley intentionally, that’s not really his style, and he uses the conventional spelling in the second stanza.]

# Like the Unfinished Souls in da Vinci’s Adoration

The reverie guided you
Across the fields, into the back alleys, and among
The first low houses, violating that clean line
Between a village and its apron of countryside,
Curious that no resistance must be crushed,
Refreshed by the receding infinity of precisions.

Alleys unfold into avenues, and that
Has been charted like the future we reject,
But lingering here allows
A yielding gesture in the face of confusion
Any simple idea could clarify.

Dust lifts and settles on the pavement.
Here and there a shade is drawn over the light.
A streetlamp flickers, then the whole block
Is illuminated. This is no revelation,
The veneer spread luminescently over everything,
No plan of action that could make life easier, hence
The one state in which you could turn to it,
Become salt, shifting, indistinguishable from sand.

Some strategy is required, some evaluation
In a calculus to be learned from the following course.
Afterwards,
No ceremonial motions can be exacted, no
Public denunciations of the self, rare
Collection of external phenomena, as various
As cornices or hunched pedestrians. There it is
Again, nightfall has surprised you.

The next poem is here.

# The Loved One

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Breaking up is hard to do, and many of us look back on old relationships and grimace at how we behaved, how we were treated, and so on. The silver lining, for those who grow emotionally, is that we learn from our past mistakes and become better partners, and learn to partner with more compatible people in the future.

Michael had a rough childhood, as an army brat moving around the world, then later as a cerebral and gay teenager. His mother raised him to be proper and not complain—stiff British upper lip and all that—and that rearing ultimately served him well and shaped a lot of what made him so special.

He grew to understand that successful relationships require sacrifice and nurturing and growth, and not to feel entitled to other people’s good behavior, even a lover’s.

Michael with his mother, Valerie

Michael had a poet’s knack for perfectly articulating, in a few words, nebulous feelings you could never quite articulate, or even think about clearly, especially about love.

The eleventh poem in Cape Cod Light is The Loved One, about a certain sort of lover.

# The Loved One

I know if I’m wrong you won’t defend me.
You’ll call your mother and tell her how wrong.
If I’m bitchy
Everyone will hear about it at once.
You weren’t raised the way I was
To say everything’s just fine,
To wake up as a child,
Eat breakfast, and walk out
To face the angry bullies on the schoolbus.
You never needed to explain.
You grew up convinced it didn’t make sense.
When you found love, you took it,
Something that was happening, like weather.

The next poem is here.

# Disco Dancing

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael loved music, and enjoyed dancing (though truth be told he wasn’t very good at it.)

Michael dancing in the living room with Michael Carl. (I think they’re dancing? ;)

Michael’s haunt in Provincetown was the Little Bar at the A House, the slightly quieter one with less club-y music that was well-lit, and where he could get a table and smoke. And also (Michael was sure to note to those he would introduce the bar to): it was the spot where Tennessee Williams liked to sit and write when he lived in Provincetown. (!)

All night there would a steady stream of people from the A House Dance Club and the Macho Bar around and through the Little Bar, and thus Michael got to sit at the social hub of town, and enjoy its characters, while listening to the music. Later, after indoor smoking was banned in Massachusetts (and after Cape Cod Light was published), he favored the Porch Bar at the Gifford House as his preferred spot to “hold court” (as Richard Schneider put it).

The tenth poem in Cape Cod Light is Disco Dancing. It captures quite well I think the experience of eavesdropping on the random conversations of people at the bar and taking a break from the Dance Club—after a few years, I guess they all start to sound the same.

# Disco Dancing

I don’t know if you’re what I want, he said.
We do things totally differently in New York.
She said it was coming on over a generation
Like sunrise sliding down the slope of the Rockies:
Even her dentist smoked pot on his vacations,
And her brother was reading Autobiography of a Yogi.
Someone said the seagulls were diseased,
Whole populations being annihilated right now.
And the jetty was dotted with corpses
Swirling slowly in the scummy brine.
He said it was time to shift inside
With the dancers, away from the hustlers by the pool
With the music, where the words were all the same
Circling back, predictable, on beat.

The next poem is here.

# Illustration

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael’s father’s name was actually Elwood.

He met his soon-to-be wife, Valerie at a mixer in England while he was stationed there shortly after VE day. Her name was Enid Elkins, but she went by her middle name Valerie because she hated “Enid.” The story I heard (certainly condensed and probably apocryphal) is that their first conversation went like this:

Valerie: Hello, I’m Valerie. What’s your name?
Elwood: Elwood.
Valerie: [pauses] Do you have another name?
Elwood: My middle name is Van Ness.
Valerie: Hello, Van.
Van: Hello, Valerie.

He took up painting late in life. That story goes that he would occasionally complain that he could do a better job than many of the painters he saw. Valerie got tired of hearing it and challenged him to prove it, so he did.

We have lots of Van’s paintings at our houses now. His genre was “copies of famous paintings.” Or no-so-famous paintings by request—I asked for a painting of the pulsar planets illustrated in Astronomy Magazine when I was young, and his reproduction hangs in my office now. Another not-so-famous reproduction is on the cover of Cape Cod Light.

As far as I know he painted only two originals; you can see part of one one of them at the top of the picture in the last post, made in the style of Rothko, but in the colors of Michael’s collegiate homes (Swarthmore, Yale, Harvard).

Van with Michael, Vanessa (right) and Victoria (my mother, front) at the beach.

So I suspect Michael got much of his artistic sensibilities from him father (though to be fair, Michael’s uncle, Frances Elkins, was also a painter, so he had influences on both sides).

The ninth poem in Cape Cod Light is Illustration. It as about how art reflects life.

# Illustration

The painted representation flowers away
Leaving us with these mounds of earth and eloquent grids
On which we can stretch experience.
As if we didn’t know the hero
Is exposed at the end as reflection. Here
The high wire artist is caught in slow motion,
Tumbling, and we wait for the next episode
To see him recover, trotting on with élan.
Or will he? Any time it could be for real
And the other rings in this circus include
The horses, for instance, who surprise you
By dancing. We are coming over the hill
Into a glare of sunlight that distorts
And clarifies: on the right
On the left, a village trembling
On its overhang of rock. What is ahead
Is too much in the light,
But not so unlike ourselves as it first appeared.

The next poem is here.

# False Clues

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael was the consummate host. He loved to entertain, to cook giant meals, to show off the house and the view, to keep the music going.

Christmastime was an endless string of family and friends; us kids on couches and mattresses on the floors of every spare room; hors d’oeuvres and drinks for everyone who stopped by or came to stay; Grandpa’s recipe for artillery punch chilling in the snow on the deck.

Thanksgivings were epic, with tables lined up from one end of the house to another, place settings crammed as close as possible, and extra chairs borrowed from the theater company or the AIDS support group.

When we invited ourselves up, when we wanted a place to stay while we showed friends the Cape, Michael never said ‘no.’  Everyone was welcome at Michael and David’s house, within walking distance of downtown and the beach.

Michael in his living room in Provincetown with good friends Ron (left) and Robert (right) at Christmastime.

But things are different when a loved one gets really sick, or after you’ve lost someone. You need space, you lose bandwidth, you can’t hold the smile quite as long. You forget things, you flake, sometimes you don’t even send regrets.

People tend to be nice about it. You and they know this is temporary, that eventually you’ll have the capacity to entertain and to laugh again. But that’s hard to think about.

False Clues is the eighth poem in Cape Cod Light. It first appeared in SQUiD, a “semi-defunct and apocryphal Provincetown publication“.

# False Clues

Ordinarily, I’d invite you to arrive
With your knapsack, cigarettes, and kisses.
At times like these,
Amid the neatly paid bills and curls of dead lettuce,
What I await shifts a little,
One thing replacing another, as Orion exiles Hercules.

But this is an apology.
I’ve stood you up before with a worse excuse.
You understand, but it’s not all the same to me.
Everyone has his dawdling angel, everyone knows
How to put it all back in its place
Just as the sky does, every year, with its stars.

The next poem is here.

# Death Watch

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael was a cat person. (Myself, I don’t take sides. I grew up with both cats and dogs and both have their charms—and their allergens).

He was also a gardener. The garden on Miller Hill was his annual project, filled with deliberately chosen climate- and soil-appropriate flowers to keep the walk up to the front door beautiful.

Getting to the house, it being tall and at the very top of the hill, required quite a hike. The driveway was very steep, leading to the basement of the house. The first floor of the house was a mother-in-law apartment (his sister Vanessa lived there for a long while). So to get to the main house, one climbed the garden stairs, then the exterior stairs up to the main balcony on the west side of the house, where the front door opened into the dining and living rooms, with their cathedral ceiling.

The seventh poem in Cape Cod Light, Death Watch, is compact and concrete, like an extended haiku, with straightforward symbolism. A bat is killed and buried in the garden; the cats play their natural role of hungry predators.

The unavoidable backdrop to this poem is that around 1990 (the time we arrived to live in their apartment in Brookline) his partner of 5 years, David Harkins, was diagnosed with AIDS. Shortly thereafter, Michael and David relocated to the Cape house full time so they could make the most of their time together. Both the incubation period and the time David lived with AIDS were on the long side at the time, and so for many more years we knew Uncle David and his family every holiday on the Cape.

Cape Cod Light was published the year after David’s death. This poem foretells what is, for those of us who knew Michael and David, the emotional heart of the book to come.

Michael and David in the garden on the steps up to the house on Miller Hill.

Michael’s dear friend Richard Schneider wrote in Michael’s obituary of “his fatalism, his wholly unsentimental view of life as an arbitrary moment in time—a great privilege to be sure, an opportunity to learn and learn; but don’t get too attached to these borrowed atoms that must be returned, whether sooner or later.”

Death Watch first appeared in Poet and Critic.

# Death Watch

A bat died this morning
Under the shovel
On the third step up from the kitchen.

On the first blow
It arched its wings
Shrieking outrage
In mouse cries.
The cats murmured like water.

The bat folded into the mulch
And the maw of April:
The cats leapt to the aroma.

Death was bracing;
They smelled it every day.
Gathered,
They guard the mound like Sphinxes.

The next poem is here.

# The Angel in the Streets

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael wrote three published books: a textbook for business students called Management Communication: Principles and Practice that grew out of his work at Harvard Business school (which is still in print), Cape Cod Light, of course, and a third called Socrates and Jesus: The Argument That Shaped Western Civilization.

Micheal’s mother was a proper British Anglican. She met my grandfather during the war while he had some R&R time in England. They were married after a whirlwind courtship and Michael grew up an army brat at army bases around the world, until they settled in my grandfather’s home state of Connecticut. My mother was born after my grandfather stopped touring, and they became a nuclear family of five.

Michael was not religious—the closest he came was his nonbeliever’s appreciation for the spectacle of the midnight Christmas Eve High Mass, which we attended once or twice at grandmum’s request, and the poetry of the King James Bible. But his childhood religious education stuck with him, and he wrote with authority about the Gospels’ place in literature and Jesus’s place in history.

Toward the end of his life, he consolidated much of his thoughts about the tension between the Enlightenment and Christianity into a single book, and had it published at a small press with essentially no marketing. I know he hoped it would gain more traction than it ever did; it’s still in print, though and you can find it on Amazon. It’s a good book!

The sixth poem in Cape Cod Light is less concrete than the others, about a lover walking the streets of a city, and his interactions with an angel (that is, perhaps, the city itself?) I’m not actually sure what inspired it or what Michael had in mind, but there are echoes here of lyrics from his all-time favorite album, Graceland:

A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the third world
Maybe it’s his first time around
Doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound, the sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says, “Amen and Hallelujah!”

It perhaps also contains allusions to Angels in America, which I have not seen.

[The Angel in the Streets first appeared in the Spring 1995 issue of The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review.]

# The Angel in the Streets

As you walk past, the music behind a door
Draws you, like a lover
Who isn’t sure it’s time to go. The sky
Prepares a background of stars, and behind it
An angel trembles at the approach of a possible god
And numbers his imperfections. The mindless vibration
Rumbles off to another part of the heavens, and the angel
Reflects how divine action is arbitrary,
Without consciousness except in its effects,
Fatal. His attention turns
To the lover, who tells his imagined errors. The angel
Throws his face into his hands and weeps.
He changes nothing.
Would not if he could. But his radiance
Penetrates the lover, and he sings, and the song
Blares from a radio into the street. Children
Plot the outlines of their games, every pedestrian
Watches where he walks, and under a new moon
The loved one walks the city, thinking of love,
Of how it must be earned. And the face, tone, gesture,
The unexpected patch of bloom in the pavement
That moves the heart up or down,
The bronze door, pigeons, colliding crowds
Unfold themselves, like the ragged fragments of an angel.

The next poem is here.

# Key West in July With a Nod

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Provincetown is a seasonal town. In the summer, it is filled with GBOVs* in their pink shorts and muscle shirts, tourist families there for the whale watching and seafood (some of whom clearly did not get the memo), and the laborers that follow tourists: the bartenders, restaurant servers, and entertainers (not that any of these categories are mutually exclusive, of course).

In winter, only the year-rounders remain; many of the rest flee south to warmer climes to keep the party going: Puerto Vallarta, Sydney, Rio, Key West. Provincetown’s sibling city is Key West; poised at the west end of the Florida keys in wonderful point symmetry with its counterpart at the East end of Cape Cod, far to the north.

Michael and David Harkins

Michael loved gay culture and was a student of it. He introduced us to Rocky Horror and John Waters at probably too-young ages (not being a parent himself, he often misgauged these things). He adored Camille Paglia and her analysis of the camp of it all (his interview of her was a personal high point in his scholarship for the Gay and Lesbian Review). He openly fretted about what the mainstreaming and acceptance of gay people in America would do to gay culture. When gay marriage came to Massachusetts he was thrilled but equivocal: he joked that it broke up half of all the couples in Provincetown, suddenly forced to have “the talk” about their long-term expectations. He wanted no part of it himself: he half-joked “Why would I want to take part in that failed heterosexual institution?”

Which is not to say he was queeny or fringe; he was mostly a paragon of the straight-laced Harvard professor. Yes, he wore a mop in the 60’s, but he was ultimately his British mother and army-officer father’s son, monogamous and conventional (I’m sure it helped that they accepted his sexuality as soon as he came out, around college). Michael was in awe of the heroes of Stonewall, but made sure I knew that it was suit-and-tie-wearing Frank Kameny that radicalized them (I did not learn Kameny was an astronomer until much later in life).

The fifth poem in Cape Cod Light is about Key West in summer, about the beach, and of course, about the humans that walk upon it.

*GBOVs=gay boys on vacation; not sure if this is a common term or a Michael-ism.

# Key West in July With a Nod

Wait here by this palm tree with its
Feathered arms pinned back like dog’s ears
For your enemies to make themselves clear.
In a few hours, the moon will rise
Between this and the next tree.

On the beach a man is walking,
Clutching a stick, dazed slightly by the sun:
He delights in the arrangement of things,
What he hears, what you lose in the breeze.
He strides and strides but never goes near the water.

Over here is where the lovers come.
They seek each other only in darkness,
And what they do doesn’t look much like love.
Appearance is false. The practical man
Allows: this making and the sea are the same.

Coral reefs have flattened out the water
With their toothy mouths; it prepares for tenderness,
How you can kiss a breast so many ways
In the sloppy arc of lust. Without a wind
The orderly catamarans are smug as clams.

The next poem is here.

# The Edge

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley.  The other parts of this series are here.]

Race Point is the end of Cape Cod. Yes, you can keep following it back around, south towards the much calmer Herring Cove and into Cape Cod Bay towards Wood End, but at Race Point the winds and the surf are strong, and you really get the feeling of being at the end of the world, where the land meets the sea. Herring Cove is the edge of the Cape, a long beach you can drive right up to.

Geography of Provincetown. Race Point is in the upper left. Miller Hill is the red marker at upper right, walking distance from downtown. The breakwater runs north-south from the southernmost part of Provincetown to Wood End.

Further back down the cape, is Cape Cod Light (“Highland Light” is its formal name) in the next town down, Truro. On the drive to Provincetown through Truro you pass long rows of white beach houses for rent.

Life is different out on Race Point and Herring Cove, and gives it you a different perspective on life than you have even in Truro or Downtown Provincetown. The fishermen have a different relationship with the sea and the town than the other Provincetown residents; the tourists tend to prefer the beaches downtown; but the “year-rounders” like Michael are stuck somewhere in between. They remain there through the winter for their own reasons, many of them to escape.

I’m pretty sure the fourth poem in Cape Cod Light is about Race Point or Herring Cove (or maybe not—the fishermen he mentions tend to be found at the wharfs downtown). Either way, it’s certainly about the shores of Provincetown, and about those in-betweener year-rounders like Michael who get to define themselves as they like.

Michael on the beach, I would guess Race Point.

[The Edge first appeared as Citizenship in Several Worlds in Poetry Northwest.]

# The Edge

At the edge, you can look back over it all
If you choose your angle right: foldings and foldings,
The hands
Sealing a package never to be opened again.
All the connections that seemed so organic inland
Grow accidental; you can have your way with the sea
Where life is the constant victim, dismissing
The footprints down the track to the beach, except
You grow less certain. They remind you
As the seawater violence in your blood reminds you.
Pins you against the curt acknowledgements
From fishermen who have seen your face before,
And between them you float free, capable of anything,
Of producing a new self at cafe tables.
Creatures float by who have lost their reality at the edge.
They have stayed too long
Without any firm connections to the sea.
They should have wives or lovers
In white cottages. But ghosts are the unlived lines.
Our silhouettes are unlived lines
When strangers walk by our windows. Then they look
At watches, or adjust their clothes. We are looking
At lovers who are thinking of strangers.
They are easier to resist
Where the foghorns will sound after dark.

Reverence, a sculpture by Jim Sardonis
Whale Tales, a photo by David Atkinson

The next poem is here.

# Stepping Across the Bay

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael loved Cape Cod, and shortly after my mother and brothers moved into his Brookline apartment he and David Harkins finished their house at the top of Miller Hill in Provincetown and he began spending weekends there. After retiring, he moved there full time, becoming a “year-rounder” (the population is highly seasonal). The view from his first floor deck is pictured above; the views from the top floor bedroom balconies are the best on the Cape, bar none:

Michael and Bret DuBack on the upper balcony at Miller Hill

Provincetown is a gay mecca, an art colony, and an old Portuguese fishing village. Michael loved all of its characters (in every sense) and became a central figure in the art scene, hosting festivals and helping run the amateur theater company in town.

Provincetown is known for its beaches, and one of the amazing attractions is the breakwater that runs from “P-town” to nearby Wood End and Long Point, the end of Cape Cod. During low tide, you can walk along it or upon it all the way across. It’s an arduous mile, and you have to watch every step lest you slip or twist your ankle, but worth the trip.

The third poem in Cape Cod Light is about a walk across Cape Cod Bay to Truro, the return home to Miller Hill, and about the youthful experiences that made him fall in love with Provincetown in the first place. I suspect it’s a metaphorical journey, a mix of the breakwater walk and an imaginary journey into the past.

It’s also about the Cape’s ghosts—the memories of the terrible loss and devastation gay men that lived through the 80’s and 90’s carry.

Michael on the beach in his youth

# Stepping Across The Bay

Today I walked across the water from Provincetown to Truro.
Sinking wasn’t a problem, it was
Making sure I got all the colors right, skipping
Over the cracks and respecting with my feet
The lines between pale green and white, deep blue and seaweed purple.
When I got to Truro, nuzzling the beach, I met
All the old friends who used to live there in the seventies.
We did great drugs, and cooked, and laid on the lawn.
Only a handful of these people will be alive
When I take a boat back, and climb to the top of the hill.

The next poem is here.

# Body Knowledge

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael taught me about etymology. He taught me how many words in English have synonyms of different origin, from the Germanic and from the Latin. Veal and lambcardic and heartcerebrum and brain. The Latin often feels flowery and poetic, the Germanic feels forthright and staccato; but he also taught me how English’s fusion of the two traditions allows its poets to transition between the two modes for rhythmic effect, as with Eliot:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

Michael presenting the rings at my wedding.

Michael had a PhD in English literature; his dissertation was on difficult poetry (Poets of Light: Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens), but he loved the popular forms, too. He was obsessed with music, especially folk, pop, and rock; he was a huge fan of The Beatles, Squeeze, Michael Jackson, and (above all) Paul Simon; he listened to their albums over and over, studying the lyrics.

He loved poring over the historical Billboard charts and arguing about who deserved to be there. He never understood our appreciation for Billy Joel. He always insisted Bob Dylan deserved the Nobel Prize, but never thought it would actually happen (oh the triumph he would have gloated with if he had only known!).

Poetry and pop music for Michael was no escapist diversion. The second poem in Cape Cod Light is dedicated to the great American poet John Ashbury, and is about the ways that poetry defines and humanizes us.

In Body Knowledge Michael muses how, from their accidental origins millennia ago to their pleasing groupings as they pour off the pop charts, words shape who we are as a species, a culture, and individuals.

The process is not neat: they smack into our senses, our interiors are stung by their hard cores and ragged edges, vestiges of the natural selection of etymology. But that’s how they get through to us, if we are willing to let them, and how they slowly mold us, heal us, and prepare us the for what the future folds.

[Body Knowledge first appeared in Poetry: A Magazine in Verse.]

# Body Knowledge

### (to John Ashbery)

These chose to be passed on
Because of how they sounded in the ear
And how practical they proved in daily life
Before they were frozen into print.
Now we’re stuck with them,
And their fragments fly about us, all
Hard cores and ragged edges. Because their teeth
Remind us of jigsaw puzzles doesn’t mean they fit,
Although ultimately, no doubt, they do, and even now,
Words from the latest song abut failed love
Snap together with what some shepherd chanted
Near the Mediterranean, some forgotten summer,
To reveal the root of last week’s feelings. Then, I wondered
And reviewed the boy whose T-shirt pictured a galaxy
With an arrow labeled: You Are Here. It was not so true
As sound passing from without to within,
With its body knowledge of distance and echoing space.

Stung by words and tunes,
Our interiors shower crystals of sentiment, their paths
Leave traces against the black, and the debris
Drifts, piles up in corners like snow. We fill up
Until we die in the extravagance of experience
That has been lavished upon us. If they can be deceived,
The senses cannot lie; they have been shaped
By what smacks against them. They give what they get.
The necessary delusion: this clean line between life and death.
The danger: that we will recognize the stones are doing their part
And lie down among them. These old songs
Feature the landscape and vanish. If we can remain
Vulnerable to each tone as it passes,
The hollow in our heart
That feels now like an avoidable sadness
Will grow vaster and vaster, until it contains
Every seed of tomorrow’s arrival.

The next poem is here.