(Photo by Jeff Dai)

N.J. Hynes is a poet born in Minnesota and based in London. The poem discussed in this essay is from her new pamphlet, “Tracking Light, Stacking Time.”

That first pandemic summer I sat at home, as instructed, listening. Went outside my flat on foot, shopping for myself and neighbors who were sheltering. When I walked through the park, I was struck by how clean it was — no coffee cups, crisp packets or sandwich wrappers. But soon new litter appeared, along with police tape over the park benches so no one could sit down. Single disposable gloves, dropped deliberately or through carelessness, contaminated or clean, anxiety in every latexed pore. And then face masks, cloth or paper, patterned or plain.

I spent that first lockdown looking down, trying to avoid the gloves and masks collecting on sidewalks and at bus stops, to avoid catching strangers’ eyes as they walked by, to avoid inhaling their breath.

Until one day, I decided to look up.

Almost every morning, for over a month, I opened a book of astronomical photographs, chose a page at random and wrote. Surprise was important. I enjoyed learning about astronomy and astrophotography, marveled at how long some of the shots took to capture, how many “single” images were mosaics of multiples. Collages built from hours of data collected over weeks, months, even years.

The length of time a shutter has to be held open, to capture distant starlight. The waiting, just as we all were waiting then. Waiting and trying to stay still.

The photographs were from the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, organized by the Royal Observatory. In normal times, the shortlisted images were exhibited at the National Maritime Museum, just down the hill from the observatory in Greenwich Park. Once, I managed to slip in between lockdowns to see the show. But mostly, I worked from exhibition catalogues. Some responses became poems.

When I opened a catalogue to “Stargazing Giant,” by Jeff Dai, I found a place I didn’t want to leave. Seven stone moai stared at me, waiting, as I stared back at them, watching. Only they were framed by the immensity of the Milky Way and the passing of time, constructed by islanders over 600 years ago — several centuries before the setting of the meridian line at the observatory that would make Greenwich the “birthplace” of time.

Dai says the moai at Ahu Akivi are special. Among the over 800 statues on Easter Island, they’re the only inland group facing out to sea, precisely located to catch the setting sun at the spring and autumnal equinoxes. An ancient observatory.

The moai reminded me of northern European legends about beings turned to stone by sunlight — and of the scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” in which some formidable trolls, busy bickering, forget to hide and are turned to stone by the rising sun (a scene so frightening to my 5-year-old mind that my parents had to stop reading the book).

Dai’s photograph inspired the poem “At Ahu Akivi.” Reading it aloud in the Endeavour Room at the Royal Observatory this past summer, I felt the audience’s stillness, our shared breath.

The room held only 20 people, not because of covid restrictions — these were long gone — but because of its tiny size. Originally a late-Victorian planetarium with a domed roof and balcony, it was warm with July sun and sweat. As I read, I stood near a screen projecting photographs that see deeper into space than the astronomers who once gathered here could have dreamed. Later, we watched the sun set over a London unfettered by police tape or quarantine.

How unlike the Zoom event in 2021 at which I first read these celestial poems, to an audience of scattered and bemused faces, as London began its third long lockdown. Listening to the recording now, I hear how slow and deliberate my voice was, as if unused to speaking in the presence of others, uncertain I would be heard.

That first recording holds my last image of my father, John P. Hynes, with his jutting Old Testament lockdown beard. Usually, we spoke on the phone, easier for his limited hearing and shaking hand to manage. This time, he’d Zoomed in, finding, he joked, the right equation for how far off course to aim for the shaking to bring his finger to the correct key.

Months later, he died suddenly, not of covid but weakened by inactivity, stiffened by keeping still. The ticket I’d bought for my first visit back to Minnesota, post-pandemic, became a ticket for planning his funeral.

Reading the poem now, I hold him and let him go.

The erosion in “At Ahu Akivi” is a transformation, not an eradication. I like beaches, as did my parents. To end up on the beach as sand is to provide a surface for someone else to walk upon. And when you’re that small — whether a grain of sand, a pebble of beach glass or a bit of bone — the ocean will carry you anywhere.

This story, our story, isn’t over. It is opening out, again.

At Ahu Akivi

seven stone men

watch the night sky

the day sky

the rising birds

the circling stars

what were they thinking

that night they sat up

knowing they should fold

their blankets pick up

chairs go home

who told the tale

that held them fast

forgetting their lives

blind to the sun’s

steady creep

did fingers tighten

as ribs and arms

thickened eyes

fixed open head

unable to turn

what slow-spun story

whispered them into

the stiffening dawn

shush now I want to hear

listen for breath

as they move

by disintegration

flake by flake

loosened to grit joining

the beach as sand

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