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Galactic Portraits as Ekphrasis


Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

— Carl Sagan

Beyond the spectral bandwidth of the rainbow, beyond ultraviolet and infrared frequencies — the visual magic of the cosmos resides. Science is factual — grounded and anchored in axioms. When one breaches the known boundaries, the wonder and poetry begin to emerge.

I recall being taught the metaphysical poet John Donne’s iconic poem, The Sun Rising, in my university undergraduate class: “Busy old fool, unruly sun, / Why dost thou thus, / Through windows, and through curtains call on us? / Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run? / Saucy pedantic wretch, …” The poem presents an ironic twist, a recalibration of the old solar-system order: “Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; / This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.”

During the teaching of this poem, all the literary tropes were discussed and enunciated at great length, but one essential detail was missed out — the reason Donne wrote the poem in the first place. He is said to have composed it after he viewed the cosmos anew through the recently invented Galilean telescope, an experience that changed his perspective of the skies forever.

Carl Sagan’s fascinating 1970 and ‘80s grainy documentaries on space and the human body first altered my own views of the outer and inner cosmoses. Much later, at the Bangalore-based Teleradiology Centre’s laboratory, I had access to spectacular X-ray digital plates on high-definition large monitors. Human organs’ fractal structures and patterns appeared as stunning art — auricles, ventricles, veins, arteries, aorta’s tree-like bonsai architecture and their miniature magic. The beauty we see on the galactic scale is replicated at the microscopic level, within the subatomic particles.

An extract from the poem Aorta Art, inspired by my visit:

“Onion-pink aorta transforms / crimson-red — tertiary twigs // split, as installation art revolves / on its axis. They pose as radiant organic sculptures, / … // … Coral-shaped aortas rotate 360° / in perfect Brownian motion // … // … illness radiating inner beauty — // hidden architecture, looped, / dancing in secret helixes.”

High-definition X-ray image of an aorta


With technological advancements in each age, the views alter and improve as does our experience — at the macro and micro level. In 1608 and 1609, Hans Lipperhey and Thomas Harriot turned the first telescopes skyward. Months later, Galileo Galilei began to use the telescope for work for which he would come to be known as the “father of observational astronomy”. He had made improvements to Lipperhey’s original version; the new device could enlarge objects 20-times more. The most recent development has been the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) — the world’s largest and most powerful space telescope. On July 12, 2022, the first set of photographs from this telescope were shared with the world. I wonder, what elegant lyrics might the 16th century ‘Silver Poets’ — Wyatt, Howard, Raleigh and Sidney — have written, or Van Gogh painted, in response to these spectacular new images.

When The Wire commissioned me to do a creative non-fiction/poetic response to the first of these never-before-seen high-definition photographic composites — I was happy to take on the challenge as an extension of my long-standing interest in science; especially light, fibre optics, fractals and photography. Here are my responses to the first four telephotos — a combination of short creative non-fiction & poetry:

SMACS 0723  

(a galaxy cluster as it existed 4.6 billion years ago) 

Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

The drama of galactic portraiture — its telescopic image revealing a deep black canvas speckled with gold, saffron, orange sprinkles. An impressionistic whir, curving illumination, densities spilling, atoms splitting — tell-tale signatures of exoplanets, seismic chemical refractions — a cosmic dance. Layered depths of light, orbits’ elliptical arcs, meteor streaks in varying ribboned lengths — swirls of turquoise, ochre, emerald, ruby, painting the sky — a foaming nebula of dying stars fuelling, lighting up the future. [And the past]. At the flick of a shutter, 4.6 billion years of stories tumble forth — the past is brought to the present by a phalanx of hexagonal gold-mirror panels. We have travelled backwards in time, despite being present in the present.

Southern Ring Nebula

(an interstellar cloud — a shell of gas and dust expelled into space by a dying star)

Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

My consciousness has an alter-ego — a bipolar binary, a twin ring. Our organs are mirrored, but we differ in subtle ways. Infrared vision reveals my blue core — the obverse, my red. Shaped as an oyster shell, light emanates from the centre to the periphery — in one, a single twinkle; the other, a couplet. Light then dissipates into outer darkness — travelling over terrains of dust, gas, ridges, canyons — millions of light-years passing swiftly in seeming slow-motion. A bird’s eye view mimics an island rock — ocean waves lashing its parabolic shores. Stars die too — in their “dying throes, [they] shake, pulsate, and at the end, poof!” Births — equally dramatic, tectonic. I hear the heartbeat of distant galaxies, feel their sonic rumble, imagine their palpability and ginormous aggregation of materials — a magical orchestra, a nebula symphony.


Stephan’s Quintet

(a constellation of five galaxies)

Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

Five galaxies glow in a single frame — their spectacular amoeba-shapes, plasma elongations — oblong, comma-tailed, yin-yan S-swish — embryonic mapping of high-voltage energy. Central suns serving as oculi — a volute, an opening at the apex of a dome. rem fluctuates, swimming in different wavelengths, in a constant state of flux. Gravitational interaction — sweeping tails of gas, dust, stars, pulled from several galaxies — smashing through the cluster of another, shock waves, cosmic aftershocks. As colour temperatures, postures, positions vary — the galactic dance temporarily freezes as still-images — grand ectopic formations of violence and beauty.

Carina Nebula

(a turbulent cloud of gas and dust) 

Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

What lies beyond these dramatic amber cosmic cliffs of Carina, birthplace and graveyard for Milky Way’s largest stars — a nebula displaying a deep rumbling space-show — colour, light, mythical/mystical shapes? DNA mappings more majestic from afar, a spectrographic wonder. Utter magnificence, fluorescent — the glowing black, blue, red, orange, yellow — a drunken swirl of psychedelia, littered with the munificence of curving light — gases rising, towering like infinite canyons, an illusion of solidity — birthing endless starbursts.

Having had a glimpse of infinity, a brush with eternity, a vision of spectacular beauty, an encounter with impermanence — a past coming alive 4.6 billion years later, I stand starstruck, even emotional. And, to know that these Webb images are only a beginning of a long road of epochal discoveries that will study every phase of the 13.8 billion years of cosmic history, stirs anticipation. A true marvel, an extraordinary time machine.

Sudeep Sen’s [] prize-winning books include Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Rain, Aria, The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor), Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015 (London Magazine Editions), EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House), Kaifi Azmi: Poems|Nazms(Bloomsbury), and Anthropocene (Pippa Rann). The Government of India awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture/literature.” Sen is the first Asian honoured to speak and read at the Nobel Laureate Festival.

Featured image: A long-exposure shot of the Carina Nebula. Image: Harel Boren.

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