Poetry: ‘Lady Stardust’

This work by Ishmael Reed was influenced by his conversations with physicists and an ongoing curiosity about the universe.

margaret burbidge
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I first used astronomical terms in my book of poetry Conjure, published in 1972. I continue to be interested in astronomy and have a work in progress about the musings of an old satellite replaced by a newer one. “Lady Stardust” was influenced by my conversations with retired physicist Myron Salamon and a session with theoretical physicist Arthur S. Theodore. Salamon believes that the universe had a beginning, a big bang. Margaret Burbidge thought that the universe had no start and has no end. Since the big bang theory is widely accepted, not only was Burbidge a woman in a field dominated by men, but she also held an unorthodox point of view.

Astronomer Margaret Burbidge died in San Francisco at the age of 100

So brilliant were the 1944 Chattanooga nights
We thought we had the stars to ourselves
They were so plentiful, they bumped into
one another In those days when we believed
With Bing Crosby, we could “carry moonbeams home in a
jar.”

The night sky was our late-night show
when we sat on our middle-class porches at 1019 Elm
Street across from a millionaire’s Montague estate, a
Hacienda-styled spooky place that was walled off from us
like the men tried to wall off Margaret Burbidge from space

Under London’s umbrella of fog, the night sky was hidden,
so it took crossing the English Channel to give Margaret
Burbidge a panoptic view of the stars. She was 4. It was
love at first sight, but men told her that eyes on the skies
were not for her. God meant for women’s eyes to be
trained on pies. But for her, the doorway to the universe
was not marked “For Men Only.” Undeterred, she let a
borrowed telescope do her talking

Mount Wilson Observatory rejected her 1955 application
because she “committed a ‘faux pas’ by applying.” They
said, “You should have known that women were not
allowed.” But she got in by posing as her husband’s
assistant when he was hers. And it was she who helped
find the stuff that stars are made of, yet the Nobel Prizes
committee excluded her. She was like the women
architects who were listed as “secretaries” to GREAT men
when the blueprints were theirs, but unlike the men who
could only see forward, she, like Ginger Rogers, could see
both ways. Because of her, no one blinks when they see
women exploring exoplanets. There are over 100 billion
galaxies. Enough to go around•

This poem appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
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