“Ode to a Nightingale in a Payload” by Craig van Rooyen

Craig van Rooyen


There are nights when the ringing
in my ears swells like a power planer
chewing through a piece of hard ash,
gnashing it to wood chips. These regrets.
These sins. On those nights
I beg the moon to share its silence, beg
for the chance to cover my mind’s ears
with its glowing quiet. Now, I hear
Google’s launched a rover called
MoonArk that will broadcast
a three-minute-and-twenty-second loop
of nightingale song as the rover rolls endlessly
across the surface of the moon.
Such extravagance. It makes me want
to love all men in lab coats everywhere.
My neighbor Luke started hearing voices
at 25. When he’s off his meds, the mini receiver
in his tooth lets him talk to Leon Panetta.
They had to remove him from a train, once,
because he pulled a knife.
His parents took him to the hospital.
The hardest part, he told me later,
was knowing he belonged there.
Some nights, when Luke can’t stop shooting
ground squirrels with his father’s .22,
his mom comes out on the porch and
takes away the gun and reads to him
from the Encyclopedia Britannica about the moon—
how it’s really just a rock, a piece of earth
that escaped into the silence of space—
how it has no atmosphere, no voice.
And sometimes I’ll sit with him
when the moon is full and neither of us can sleep.
He likes to imagine a place utterly without sound.
“Not even God’s voice. Not even that.”
So I don’t tell him about MoonArk
and the nightingale up there. But I think
it might help. Longing for silence is a hard way
to be in the world. They say a song
never dies completely.
It just gets more and more faint
as the sound waves flatten out and separate
across the black sea of endlessness.
I imagine birdsong reaching us from the moon,
our inner ears not delicate enough to hear it—
that still small voice, one note
every hour or so—the lilting, tenuous melody
as MoonArk crunches on
through the light-absorbing dust
at the bottom of the Ocean of Storms.

Poets Respond
August 2, 2016

[download audio]


Craig van Rooyen: “I was fascinated to read in an article by Amanda Petrusich in the New Yorker this week, that a privately-funded group with seed-money from Google will launch a moon rover named ‘MoonArk’ later this year. One of the cultural relics included on the MoonArk is a song: a three-minute-and-twenty-second recording of a nightingale, made in Bremen, Germany, in 1913, by Karl Reich. Engineers describe the MoonArk and its 6-ounce payload as ‘a deep human gift and gesture for the Moon.’ Sometimes human beings can still surprise and move me with their extravagance.”

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