“The Theory of Everything—Science, Religion, Grammar School, Surfing, & the 99¢ Store” by Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley


Einstein didn’t worry about his socks, attending temple, or his soul;
he played violin in the kitchen and worked out the math in his head,
trying to put gravity, electro-magnetism, the weak and strong
nuclear forces back together again.
In 1929, fishing for scientific
A-List back up, counting on the famous statement about Physics—
God does not play dice with the universe, a rabbi telegraphed Einstein
asking if he believed in God. Einstein replied, “I believe in Spinoza’s God
who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God
who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
Game over.
Mid-’50s, Catholic grammar school, and no one interested
in explaining just what invisible force held our atoms together;
rather, we were daily indoctrinated with the likelihood that most of us
would be roasting for All Eternity on a fiery spit. The nuns and priests
were sure they knew what was what, sure that you needed to give up
everything on earth to wear a starry crown and walk the streets of Paradise
with the saints.
But even before I cracked my General Science text,
I had my doubts … walking on water, rising from the dead …
A snowball’s chance in hell I thought—it was all a spiritual shakedown,
a boondoggle, a Madison Ave. marketing campaign for Faith.
Everyone was just making things up—no one could diagram
the unseen syntax of the stars—the implied subject, the indirect
objects—any more than they could fly to the moon.

* * *

But by then it was too late to cross our fingers and call “King’s X”
or “Time out,” as we did when the light spun slowly out of the tops
of eucalyptus in the west and we were called in from play,
each of our particles vibrating in its own atomic membrane,
though we were sure it was our own hand in front of our face
and not a slate of molecules taken on contingency. Nonetheless,
we hoped there might be something inside every buzzing electron
smashing away inside the cyclotron of our blood—light zooming
out our skin and eyes for at least as long as we were young …
and all the while every last illuminated, dark, or blazing bit of matter
was speeding away from us through space, red-shifted toward a blind,
unknowable edge regardless of what was proclaimed joyfully
in choirs beneath an indeterminate sky, where we knew
there had to be a catch, something scribbled on the undersides
of passing clouds, something vague and weary as the waves
sliding into shore, their equivocal code unread inside the surf …

Beneath it all, I borrowed a body from time, traveled curl and froth,
living on gravity, sea-winds, and tides, which came to little
more finally than what St. Theresa the Little Flower had,
who ate nothing but light, who rose into the ecstasies of air—
which, had I thought it over, might have half-way made sense
as I rode the nose of my board, screaming down a thin section
above the rocks at Miramar Point, hands thrown up in hosannas
to a secular sky, kinetic in my bones and skin, never taking a second
to bless the electrons that sparked and networked invisibly
from my tendons to the lip of the wave, everything shot through
with salt and un-seeable space—as were my briny synapses,
the cartload of electricity within the flex coils and strings
of my corpuscles, in the apparently inexhaustible fabric of my breath.

Every 50 years the smart guys think they’ve made the final calculations,
have a system to count the cosmic cards before the lights go out.
Even as a child the stars represented everything, or at least a good
portion of it in the schematics of hope as each day we let it all ride,
double or nothing, minute to minute on life everlasting.

* * *

And yesterday, checking out at the 99¢ Store where I go to save
on vegetables, yogurt, paper towels, crunchies for my cat,
everything under the sun, I’m pushing my cart along the aisle
of school supplies and pick up a copy of the TIME/LIFE
publication 100 Ideas That Changed the World on top of
the remaindered books—a magazine-size paperback
with photos of Einstein, a computer keyboard, an artist’s
depiction of the Big Bang, and a Greek Orthodox mosaic of Jesus
blessing us all from its glossy cover. The clerk, who I know
from my weekly visits, is a Mexican woman, older even than me,
white hair, soft grey eyes, someone who shouldn’t be working
any more. As she scans my items, she stops and looks at the book,
points to the photo of Einstein, and asks me if he isn’t that old guy
from Chico and the Man? You remember that TV series,
don’t you? Freddie Prinze? And I say, Yes, Yes, mid-’70s,
I saw some episodes long ago … but this photo’s of a scientist,
Albert Einstein, not Jack Albert who played the owner of the garage
in that East L.A. neighborhood. Einstein draws a blank with her.
Sure looks like that viejo on TV, she says … then looks at me,
shakes her head a little and sighs, “Where does the Time Go?”

from Rattle #50, Winter 2015


Christopher Buckley: “Since the early ’80s, I’ve been interested in cosmology, astrophysics, theoretical physics, et al. I have watched countless episodes of NOVA on PBS and read articles and books written to explain the concepts and discoveries (which seem to change/develop every few years) to non-professionals like myself with at best a 9th grade education in science. Atomic theory goes back to the pre-Socratics, and, to communicate the ideas, the writers have to simplify the language, often rendering it in metaphors. This has all contributed to my concerns as a poet, pitting metaphysics against a logical doubt and the facts of science. All that has to be balanced with everyday experience. That is where the irony usually enters, for me at least. I try not to sound like a science student repeating his class notes, to keep the phrasing balanced and come up with some meaning, some ideas at least—something that will keep me interested and striving.”

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