The isolation of two milliard light years – Tanikawa Shuntaro

The isolation of two milliard light years

The human race, on its little ball,
Sleeps, wakes, and works,
Wishing at times for companionship with Mars.

The Martians, on their little ball –
What they do, I don’t know.
Maybe the sloop, wike, and wook.
But at times they wish for companionship with Earth –
That’s certain.

Universal gravitation
Is the pulling together of the force of isolation.

The universe expands
And so we all unite our wants.

The universe distends
And so we are all uneasy.

The isolation of two milliard light years
Prompts an involuntary sneeze.

– Tanikawa Shuntaro

Translated from the Japanese by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite.

The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (1964), translated and edited by Bownas and Thwaite, in which I found this piece, lists Tanikawa Shuntaro as a modern-style poet of the modern era and says he was born in 1931. After that, I know nothing else about him and barely any more about Japanese poetry, but Google helpfully throws up some more information. A couple of links which highlight his popularity, versatility and success in Japan are here and here.

Humans have always made stories of fantasy peoples. The growth of science and our understanding of the structure of the universe has been resulted in the populating of extra-terrestrial planets instead of subterranean realms or fairy-lands. Mars as one of the closest planets has always been a popular choice.

Like most stories of non-humans, “The isolation of two milliard light years” says, with gentle humour, more about human society and concerns than being serious speculation on the nature of reality. In the parallelisms of the first two stanzas, it points out that everyone, humans of different nations and presumably alien civilisations too, share the same impulses. Tanikawa Shuntaro was born and grew up in a country at war and then under foreign occupation, so it is not surprising that he might write on such themes.

While our hopes and fears and desires and needs may be shared with alien species, we don’t actually know of any. The immense size of the universe and the emerging knowledge of the number of exoplanets suggest that life elsewhere seems inevitable, but it must be rare and almost any attempt to estimate how many other instances there are is not much more than a guess.

Milliard is an old word for a thousand million, what we now call a billion (billion used to mean a million million, i.e. a million to the power of 2). One calculation of the size of the observable universe is a diameter of 93 billion light years. By comparison, the Milky Way is approximately 100,000 light years across and the nearest satellite galaxies are less than 0.1 million light years away. ‘Two milliard light years’ is therefore vast even on a galactic scale, but with no data points on which to base the degree of our isolation, and with almost any possible chosen number well beyond human comprehension, it is as good as any – writers very often hugely underestimate the scale of the universe (I wouldn’t have been surprised to read of a clearly unrealistic ‘isolation of 10,000 light years’ or ‘billion kilometres’), and at least the number here is of a plausible magnitude.

In the second half of the poem, the scale shifts and greater emphasis is placed on the shared human experience in the context of the isolation of the Earth-life, and makes one think of the importance of overcoming trivial differences of culture, different ways of seeing or doing the same fundamental things. Our isolation is very real, and the scale of the universe is so staggering that, even if we know it as an intellectual fact, it is almost impossible to understand our place in it. This simulateous awareness and incomprehension provokes a strange reaction, a kind of brain sneeze. The mental/emotional conflict is reflected in the change of the form of the poem: the couplets provide a sense of precision but they are disrupted by near rhymes (universal/force, expands/wants, years/sneeze) that introduce subtle confusion in the reader.

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