Over the next few weeks, if it doesn’t destroy itself and the sun doesn’t burn it up, Comet ISON just may put on one hell of a show. Enthusiasts have already called it a “comet of the century” and dubbed it a “Great Comet.” Within just a few days, this very small space rock — only about three miles across — will slingshot around the sun, traveling at .2 the speed of light and passing within 730,000 miles of the sun’s surface. Using only gravity as a propellant, it will dance across our sky with a show that, if the predictions are even remotely accurate, will dazzle, amaze, and stay with you for a very long time.
Perhaps you’re already watching. Some people who rise early enough — at least an hour before dawn — and have a clear view of the lower eastern sky and have been tracking the comet with the aid of binoculars or a telescope have already formed a bond with this visitor from the outer reaches of our solar system. I know I’ve seen several comets in my life. But the one I most clearly remember and feel connected to is Hale-Bopp, the Great Comet of 1997 that followed me half way around the world.
We saw the comet Hale-Bopp stand still
Above the ocean at Ka’anapali Beach,
Just like the crow we saw one morning rise
In Boston, a black knight errant, holding still
Against the wind, and flapping its wings to stay
In place while others watched then rode the wind
Up through the sky — first one, then three, while the first
Held still, then dipped, then rose along their arc.
Again in Atlanta, we saw Hale-Bopp
And watched its tail that arced above Stone Mountain,
As stony as the frieze on the mountain’s face,
The infamous past held lifeless there until
A laser called it back and thundering hooves
Like in a page from Faulkner roared inside
The head of a thousand Hightowers then died
When floodlights splashed against the granite wall.
I once saw black Ogunquit sea birds skate
Across the water’s surface with their wings
Outstretched and necks pushed forward like a horse
Gaining speed to rise up from the waves,
A white spray arcing from their tails beneath
The granite cliffs and slate New England sky.
© Joseph Saling and The New Word Mechanic, 2004, 2013.
Our encounter with the visitor from afar, may be closer than we think.