They serve revolving saucer eyes,
dishes of stars they wait upon
huge lenses hung aloft to frame
the slow procession of the skies.
They calculate, adjust, record,
watch transits, measure distances.
They carry pocket telescopes
to spy through when they walk abroad.
Spectra * possess their eyes they face
upwards, alert for meteorites,
cherishing little grassy worlds:
receptables for outer space.
But she, expelled, ex-queen,
swishes among the men of science
waiting for cloudy skies, for nights
when constellations can't be seen.
She wears the rings he let her keep;
she walks as she was taught to walk
for his approval, years ago.
His bitter features taunt her sleep.
And so when these have laid aside
their telescopes, when lids are closed
between machine and sky, she seeks
terrestrial bodies to bestride.
She plucks this one or that among
the astronomers, and is become
his canopy, his occulation; **
she sucks at earlobe, penis, tongue
mouthing the tubes of flesh; her hair
crackles, her eyes are comet sparks.
She brings the distant briefly close
above his dreamy abstract stare.
* images retained for a time on the retina of the eye when turned away after gazing fixedly at bright objects
**concealment of a heavenly body behind the body of the earth
Exploring Meaning on Three Different Levels In Fleur Adcock’s Poem.
“An artist deals with aspects of reality different from those which a scientist sees.” –Richard Wright
In a world where science reigns from a cold steel throne and poetry and her musings have been left out to graze, few consider the separate realities of science and art any real problem at all, save for the artists, of course. In her poem “The Ex-Queen Among the Astronomers,” Fleur Adcock ventures to explore this rift between worlds and to ask why, perchance, they can’t be joined together again.
The poem itself exists upon several different levels. On the surface it is a poem about astronomers who study the skies and the “ex-queen,” the constellation Cassiopeia. However, beneath the surface two distinct levels of deeper meaning exist. The first involves the relationship of science to tradition and myth while the second forms a complicated metaphor for the role of women in society. Although these different interpretations can co-exist and strengthen one another, we will consider each one separately, intending to illustrate Adcock’s skill in creating a multi-layered work and ultimately her skill in bridging two distinct worlds.
Part I: Working With Words
Dissecting a poem, reading through every word and line to analyze the work at its most rudimentary level is both difficult and necessary. In order to understand Adcock’s intended meaning in the poem, what she is really trying to say, it is crucial to understand it on the surface, to explore the poem line by line, and to evaluate symbols and imagery. Adcock’s use of language and structure in “The Ex-Queen Among the Astronomers” is exhibited in what is essentially a very lyrical poem. Many of her words and lines could easily be described as “elegant.” However, exactly why she chose to write a lyrical poem around scientists and machines is not yet clear.
The first and last lines of each stanza of “The Ex-Queen Among the Astronomers” rhyme, creating a sort of frame for what is in between. This is an effective way to start examining the poem, as the structure can be likened to the content easily. The poem has scientists/astronomers creating a frame or defined edge for the sky; they do not see the whole sky, only that which their telescope lenses can focus on at one time. This belief is evident from the start, as the first line reads “They serve revolving saucer eyes.” There are two distinct images in this line, one that reflects the servile nature of the “they” and another image that evokes both flying saucers as well as a kind of humanized machine, as the “revolving saucer eyes” are no doubt a part of the astronomers’ telescopes described in the second stanza. The first stanza continues: “dishes of stars; they wait upon / huge lenses hung aloft to frame / the slow procession of the skies.” Again, Adcock uses images of serving and now adds waiting. Perhaps this signifies a sense of dependency upon the “huge lenses” or even a sense of the absolute faith in machinery that is found in science. The word “frame” also appears in this stanza over “the slow procession of skies.” Of course, it is impossible to “frame” the skies, but this is what astronomers attempt to do with their telescopes and lenses, isn’t it? Adcock’s humanization continues with the use of the word “procession.” A procession, very orderly and synchronized, is a very human notion, yet to liken the stars to people is a strange notion in the world of science, yet not so much in the world of art.
The second stanza creates a rather meticulous picture of these people. “They calculate, adjust, record, / watch transits, measure distances.” Apparently these are some very exact, precise astronomers. It is almost as if Adcock is making a sarcastic comment on the very nature of science: the demand for concrete evidence and the need for careful precision. This idea can be supported further by her next few lines “They carry pocket telescopes / to spy through when they walk abroad.” This obviously cannot be literal, but maybe it is meant to symbolize that these astronomers take their work seriously, very seriously, perhaps even too seriously. The use of the word “spy” is intriguing because it implies that something is being done in secret or inconspicuously, as if there is something to hide. If these astronomers are hiding, then from whom or from what are they hiding?
“Spectra,” the plural of spectrum, are crucial to the study of stars and their composition. What is interesting here is that the “spectra” of the third stanza that the astronomers study actually “possess their eyes.” While we have already noted Adcock’s tendency to humanize the stars, this particular description is a little unsettling. The astronomers are possessed or controlled by these spectra, “they face / upwards, alert for meteorites, / cherishing little glassy worlds: / receptacles for outer space.” The imagery that Adcock uses here is powerful. These astronomers are possessed, they are almost mesmerized as “they face / upwards,” they cherish “little glassy worlds” and exist perhaps in a state of intense fervor. Also, the use of the word “glassy” is really very striking here. The word itself is almost beautiful; it conjures up images of beauty at the least, but how are the stars and planets “glassy?” “Glassy” implies something that is fragile, that can be easily broken, something clear or not easily seen, or even something visible only through a glass lens. Maybe the “little glassy worlds” that “they” cherish are just that: fragile, transparent, and only exist when viewed through “huge lenses.” This is important considering that Adcock’s next line, “receptacles for outer space,” implies that there is something that can hold space. This is literally impossible, but to an astronomer perhaps the vastness of space can be contained within the tiny lens of a telescope.
Finally, in the fourth stanza, we are able to clarify the gender of these “men of science” as the “ex-queen, / swishes among” them. Why did Adcock wait so long to introduce gender into her poem? Although it is perhaps only for emphasis when we at last reach the fourth stanza, it could also be kind of a sarcastic joke on the reader. After carefully going through the first three stanzas, most readers would automatically assume that these people, these astronomers with their telescopes were men, the poem is designed to create that assumption, yet, it is not until the picture of these “men” is established and clear that Adcock actually gives them to us as men.
The “she” of the rest of the poem is a mystery. Upon first glance the “exile, expelled, ex-queen” evokes an image of the constellation Cassiopeia, the queen whose reign in the night sky has been replaced by science. Yet why does Adcock use so many “ex” words to describe her queen? Surely one would have been enough? The use of the three terms in a row not only provides a strong sense of emphasis but also creates a sense of pity toward the “ex-queen.” Already we as readers feel for her, as she “swishes among the men of science / waiting for cloudy skies, for nights / when constellations can’t be seen.” Perhaps if she can’t be seen by the astronomers, studied and dissected by the “men of science,” she will once more be free to reign as queen of the sky.
The meaning of the fifth stanza is vague and unclear. It suggests a much more metaphorical meaning than previous stanzas, however the imagery is still just as powerful. The first question that inevitably arises is “who is ‘he’?” The man described could be one of the astronomers, but most likely is someone else, someone who was once dear to her. This is evident in the line “she wears the rings he let her keep” as if she has no property of her own or is still clinging to some distant memory. It suggests that a parting has taken place, “years ago.” She walks, as queens often do, “as she was taught to walk / for his approval, years ago.” “His bitter features taunt her sleep,” suggesting that maybe it is she who has done something to make him bitter. He taunts her sleep, and not her waking, because he is now long gone.
Adcock resumes from her brief interruption of the fifth stanza with her story in the sixth, as the scientists have “laid aside / their telescopes, when lids are closed / between machine and sky” to retire for some time. The image of closed lids is one of sleep and rest; yet again Adcock uses this image for machine and sky and not for people. As “she” continues, “she seeks / terrestrial bodies to bestride” which implies that somehow she is not terrestrial, but celestial instead. The word “bestride” produces an image of straddling or completely covering these earthly bodies or even enveloping them. She has to seek an astronomer because they no longer seek her, perhaps to seduce him once again with her beauty, that of the sky without telescopes and lenses ruining the view.
The last two stanzas are constructed differently from the first six. They read together like one long stanza to wrap up this somehow sad story. “She plucks this one or that among / the astronomers, and is become / his canopy, his occultation;” again she is seen as sort of enveloping or obscuring him in some way. The word “plucks” implies that her selection is a random one, it does not matter whom she chooses, just that she does choose. “She sucks at earlobe, penis, tongue / mouthing the tubes of flesh;” in essence creating a sense of intimacy by using describing sensual acts. Yet why is it that this sensual and intimate encounter can only occur when science is in effect “turned off?” Perhaps it is because the mystery and beauty of the stars can only be appreciated alone, with no telescopes or lenses to eclipse the view.
“Her hair / crackles, her eyes are comet-sparks.” She is celestial, or perhaps like a celestial being in her beauty. “She brings the distant briefly close / above his dreamy abstract stare.” These last two lines end the poem on a very sweet and sentimental note. Considering the quote by Richard Wright, it is almost as if she is bringing the worlds of the scientist and the artist together. Perhaps she is a representation of Adcock, the poet, who uses words and language to bridge the gap between science and art.
Part II: The Relationship Between Old and New
After careful examination, “The Ex-Queen Among the Astronomers” seems to be a poem that relates poetry and tradition (old) to science (new). The woman of the poem is central to this metaphor; she represents the artist and mother. A queen is said to be the mother of her people, and this queen was perhaps Mother Nature or Mother Earth before she was usurped by science. The idea that “science” is what is intended as the opposite of the ex-queen is deduced clearly from the close proximity of “exile, expelled, ex-queen” and “men of science” in the poem. When she waits for “cloudy skies, for nights / when constellations can’t be seen” it is as if Adcock is creating a rift between the old and the new; they cannot co-exist together. However, as the scientist (new) is able to remove himself from his work and to experience the queen in all her splendor, the rift closes and the two worlds are able to exist as one.
Adcock humanizes the sky and the stars in her poem (see Part I: Working With Words). Since the sky and the stars symbolize the world as a whole, what this accomplishes is to create the impression that the earth is a very beautiful place that is not here only to be studied and measured. This idea is further echoed in the slow change from day to night that occurs in the poem. As it commences, the astronomers are busy with their work, at midday they take their work with them and “walk abroad,” and at night they lay “aside / their telescopes” and return home. This change is evident in the language, which initially is rather concrete, but ends up very passionate, abstract, and dreamy. In this way the poem is positive; its final message is happy as the astronomer is able to see the world in all its beauty as “she brings the distant briefly close / above his dreamy abstract stare.”
Part III: Women
On its deepest level, “The Ex-Queen Among the Astronomers” is about women and their second place role in society. Adcock finished this poem in 1979, at a time when the women’s liberation movement had already begun and created a strong bond between women everywhere. This metaphor first becomes clear when the ex-queen appears and is the only female where all of the scientists are male. Of course this implies a causal effect, the “ex-queen” was exiled and expelled by the male scientists. But why scientists, why would Adcock use scientists to represent men as a whole? Possibly because scientists, and especially astronomers, represent the future of our society. At the time that this was written (and in the present time as well), space exploration seemed like the wave of the future, and maybe by having her men be astronomers, Adcock was making a pessimistic statement about what lies in store for the future. Or, she could be doing the opposite, using astronomers because they represent the future and the future is what all “ex-queens” have to conquer, as Adcock’s “ex-queen” does in this poem.
Another angle to view this poem from is that of a sense of longing for the past. Maybe this poem is a simple musing of an “ex-queen” to return to her throne and days of being pampered and treated like a queen should be treated. It is conceivable that when “she brings the distant briefly close / above his dreamy abstract stare” she is bringing the past, where women were not seen as equal with men, closer and remembering how it felt to be queen back again.
More likely, the poem centers its message around women who are “ex-ed” by men. Its tone reveals a sense of sorrow and of sadness. The fifth stanza sounds almost like the story of an abandoned ex-wife, who wears “the rings he let her keep” as a reminder of what she once was, property. While the majority of the poem echoes this sad tone, the final few lines bring a sense of hope. She is again able to experience passion. She is adored and able to seduce science (the future). Maybe that is why she became the “ex-queen” in the first place, to escape from bondage. It is here, in the end of the poem that its message becomes clear. Women who desire to be free from their bonds, like the “ex-queen,” must wait until night falls and then sneak up on the future and seduce it. Only then can the artist bridge the gap between past and present, old and new, and join two separate worlds together.