Poet’s Guide to Science: The History of the Second

You hear them on NPR, read them
on websites, store them for
cocktail parties and first dates.

Every second:
a hummingbird’s wings flap 80 times.
Thunder rumbles 1,100 feet. Four to five people
are born; two die. At least 100,000 chemical reactions
fire in your brain. You lose
about three million red blood cells;
your bone marrow replaces them.
100,000 cubic feet of water pour
over Niagara Falls. The sun burns
nine million tons of gas.

Or if you counted a galaxy’s stars,
one per second, you’d finish in 3,000 years.

But here’s the truth:
the second, or the second division
of an hour by sixty, was born
in the late 16th Century, one hundred years
before measured accurately
until Earth’s lopsided axis forced
its redefinition, then another
to the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods
of the radiation emitted by Caesium-133,

then again when this atomic measure
was found affected by altitude,
each second longer
in mountains than seashore.

So maybe hovering aside hibiscus
or sunset hyssop the bird flaps 81 times.
Maybe you lose three million and one cells,
or two-point-two people die.

You shouldn’t be bothered,
but these are differences that keep
you staring into bedroom-dark.
Those numbers mean
to disorient you, almost as much
as leap-seconds added here and there,
which did make your fifteenth year
the longest of your life.

You’ve no choice
but to turn back abstraction.
Become a child again to make it equal
how long you could plash puddles
before lightning drove you inside.
Beg for second chance to run
in the rain, when everything
was simple as hide-and-seek’s
one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three…

Levan_photoMichael Levan received his MFA in poetry from Western Michigan University and PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee. His work can be found in recent issues of Rock & Sling, Natural Bridge, Mid-American Review, American Literary Review and Heron Tree. He teaches writing at the University of Saint Francis and lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana with his wife, Molly, and son, Atticus.