Drawing Circles with Time
Just before sunset, in early March, it was finally warm enough to go out on my back porch to have a glass of wine before dinner. I opened the storm door and stepped out, the glass cupped in my hand. Across the alley, the flat brick wall of the four-story apartment building, as always, forced my gaze up over the roof, up the chimney to the tip of the aerial, then overhead to the open air. I looked straight up, peering out beneath the brim of my hand into a maelstrom of thousands of wheeling hawks, two hurricanes of black wings, in high, lazy whirlpools, each spinning in absolute silence around an eye of transparent blue; spiraling off in pairs, looping back, interweaving themselves again into the funneled cloud of birds. The topmost pairs, winged specks, suddenly shot golden in the slanting light. Two dense spinning circuses turning inward and outward, throwing off pairs, like duets of skaters spun out of a crowd. Circles turning within circles, like the overlapping gears of a giant clock. One storm spun east, the other slowly west.
When my mind, at last, caught up to what my eyes were witnessing, I noticed that the pairs of hawks which spiraled out of the swarm nicked and tore at each other’s feathers as they spun past—having no hands, no lips, they clawed and tore playfully at the feathers of the chosen one. What better way to find a mate than to swoop by and take a bite, claw playfully at your beloved while riding a thermal? It reminded me of a great Irish Caeli dance, dancers pairing off within rings of dancers—circles whirling within ever dizzying circles—a celebration of lust, hunger and plenty. So this was a gigantic aerial mating dance following the warm spring thermals up the coast; a traveling, predatory wedding feast—blown slightly off course—over the flat tar roofs, the smoking, bricked-in canyons of Baltimore. I supposed the swirling mob gradually thinned out as it revolved to the north, up the spine of the Appalachians. Pair after pair rounding a corner of the sky and dropping out of sight into a valley among the boulders and treetops.
In stunned wonder, my mind reeled back again into my past looking for something comparable: I thought of sharks overhead in slow, lazy loops, blood in the water. Water spiraling down a drain, cyclones, galaxies, Emerson’s Circles, Yeats’ gyres, Empedocles’ description of God: a circle whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere.
For sure, nature abhors the straight line. The curve is deeply imprinted into the architecture of things: the nucleus of a cell is a circle within a circle; the double helix curves into a gyre; the atom is a sphere encircled with energy. I remembered another March day, about a decade before, when my wife and I stood on the arched span of a bridge over a frozen reservoir ringed by pines and gray deciduous forest; the wide lake a flat sheet of white with thin black fissures in the ice zagging off in various directions. On both sides of each crack an irregular line of Canada geese—what must have been ten thousand birds—were scattered across miles of ice as far as the coves and open shoreline would allow us to see. It was just beginning to thaw, and the migrating geese were lined up for a drink or maybe if they were very lucky, a nibble to eat.
All at once they began to lift off, a confused mob of feathered bodies as they rose over the trees. The sky filled with them. Gradually, a shape began to emerge from the winged confusion as they spun themselves into a huge flat, spiraling circle, miles across. Then the sky emptied as their orbit spun out over the woods to the edge of the horizon. We watched for a good fifteen minutes wondering what, under heaven, these geese were up to. The answer slowly came clear as they assembled themselves, back overhead again, into an immense pinwheel of honking geese, organizing itself into spokes, which one by one, finally peeled off as they bent into a long series of parallel Vs. Each bird having found its proper place, the flock flew off to the northwest.
The scale and magnificence of the spectacle left us staring off into the distance, then at each other—at the amazingly efficient ability of these thousands of geese to organize themselves. They obviously knew what they were doing, but how could they know such a thing? Some combination of innate instinct and experience? No doubt it was the older birds that got the younger ones into line. Maybe circling over the lake was also used to orient the flock to the four directions by the position of the sun or maybe they used the earth’s magnetic field like a gigantic, living compass to find true north as they formed themselves into waves of Vs.
Having remembered the pinwheel of migrating geese, I began to think of how useful the circle is. Turned outward—for observation and defense, for fixing many eyes on the horizon to figure out just where you are and to keep every pair of eyes on alert in every direction for approaching danger. Turned inward, the circle creates community; every face can search every other. No wonder the circle became a sacred shape, repeated endlessly in ancient architecture and design: in the ring fort, the stone circle, in Stonehenge, the round table. Emerson calls it, the flying perfect, the first of forms. There is grace in its geometric shape, in tracing its circumference. It is the letter O, the non-number zero. It is the serpent swallowing its tail—the ancient symbol for infinity. It is the arch in the archetype.
I remember as a child, throwing sticks into a large pool where the current of a swift stream widened, deepened, and slowed. I watched the sticks and a few scattered leaves file away in a wide arc around the edge of the pool, then twirl in narrowing circles as the swifter current caught them up, causing ever more swiftly moving circles within circles, orchestrated by some invisible force. I tossed in more sticks, more leaves—until the lines of the revolving force itself became visible—and I could see the outline of it, as if connected by dots, hauling everything after it as it spun along, ever more swiftly. But for a moment I had seen the shape of the invisible.
What I saw was the effect of gravity on the flowing water as its movement down the slope of the stream bed was arrested by logs and stones. It was the movement of the sometimes invisible, sometimes almost invisible current—at times a rippling shadow on the bottom, or a coil of bubbles, which became more visible the more it towed in its wake. It seemed the same with the hawks as they rode the thermals in wide gyres against the pull of gravity—like leaves swept into an invisible current—those thousands of wings whirling north on a warm stream of air.
It occurred to me as I watched the hawks, we should all have the good sense to be dizzy. The earth spins swiftly on its axis from day into night and through the seasons as it rounds the sun, which in turn, is the hub of the eight planets, the sun a star in the spiraling arm of the Milky Way—all whirling away at an accelerating pace, farther and farther out into an expanding universe. How is it I can stand up straight, that I seem to stand still in the swift darkness, the flowing light speeding toward me then curving away?
The circle is the prime symbol for order in the universe. The word universe itself suggests an intuition of order—uni meaning “one,” and verse meaning “to turn.” Nothing seems to move in a straight line for very long before the line begins to bend. The longer the line, the more it begins to bow into a curve, then an arc, soon possibly, an ellipse. Is it an iron law that every line must bend given enough time and space? Time, the current in which all things move, seems in love with the circle. Everything within the curve of space ends up orbiting something more massive than itself.
Even the flight of an arrow is an arc. So one must wonder, is time an arrow whose flight is curved? Is it likely that everything in time speeds inevitably towards its beginning?
Is forever a circle?
© Michael Fallon
Michael Fallon is a poet and a Senior Lecturer in English at UMBC where he has taught creative writing, literature, and composition since 1985. Fallon has edited the literary magazines Puerto del Sol (1980-81) and the Maryland Poetry Review (1984-91) where Fallon was the founding editor. His poems have appeared in the American Scholar, The Antietam Review, The Potomac Review, Sin Fronteras, the Oyez Review, and in many other literary magazines. Fallon’s essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in the Maryland English Journal, Loch Raven Review, the New England Review and other magazines. Fallon was a winner of two Maryland State Arts Council Fellowships in Poetry in 1988 and 2009 and is the author of three collections of poetry: A History of the Color Black (Dolphin-Moon Press, 1991; Since You Have No Body, (winner, Plan B Press Poetry Chapbook Competition, 2011); and The Great Before and After (BrickHouse Books, 2011). Recently, Fallon’s nonfiction essay, “The Other Side of Silence,” was selected by lithub.com, The Best of the Literary Internet and posted on its website. Fallon’s book of poems, House of Forgotten Names, was accepted by Salmon Press of Ireland and will be published in 2017.