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Avery Slater
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Bullet Proof

We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of air.
—Evangelista Torricelli

1. Silkworms; the Casimir Effect, 1948

From the fifth instar’s insatiable gut
to the mouthless adult thumbing the world
like so much ripened plum with its lidless eyes,
a way was found to retrieve the silk
from the swaddled worm, spilled back from its body’s spool.

From quilt-stitched hair to shaved steel. Moss. Then,
silk—in a four-ply Aachen weave—
to withstand a revolver’s shot, one way
for the dueling man to reinherit
the earth, in a bulletproof vest.

Entry somewhere—exit elsewhere:
nothing is lost for the self-sufficient.
In the Phillips Lab, two Dutch physicists
wrote a sequel for the riddle of the thumb-capped reed
drawing water from water that had baffled the Greeks
for whom there had been no truth to the void
only fullness of earth, only forms as the mind receives them.

From theories of Nothing to the Casimir Effect:
two mirrors, secure in a vacuum, uncharged,
unmagnetized, no force gauged between them,
will (parallel, as their distance dwindles
down to a hundred-thick strand of atoms)

seem to attract: that seam, the effect
proximity inspires in a negligible gap.
One atmosphere of pressure, as the two mirrors meet
cymballing together in the airless chamber
to illustrate that even when all one is able
to remove is removed

there is energy left. There is force arising from the field.


2. Sericulture: 3,000 BCE–present

With a history of care five millennia long,
the silkworm no longer lives in the wild.
Bred and bred with itself, its gene pool
cinched shut, stalled to eternal routines,
fixed in the greenhouse glass of its body’s yield.

Still no one can duplicate its simple thread—
beta-pleated protein sheets congealed
in corkscrewing noils of amino peat.
It’s the mess of nature that’s so hard to recreate:
mutations mar any hope to retrieve.

At a river’s dammed mouth, its surge translates
elsewhere to voltage. Just downstream,
the riverless walled ravine, like an apse—
harnessed, withheld. When the system is closed,
such gain; such a ghostly blank.


3. Einstein’s λ; Redshift, 1929

Abhorrence of a vacuum: mother of invention.
Pupae. At eight paces, bulletproof silk.

Torricelli’s quicksilver column ascending
to the gap that weight of the earthly heaven
cannot counterbalance, in an emptied tube of glass,

proved there was pressure, like an unseen hand,
everywhere that is; that we live in a limbo

tangled and embraced by opposing exertions,
even in a vacuum, waves slowly rocking toward
drift and collision. Atlas, shouldering the globe.

Einstein, watching the universe collapse—
contracting to a point like a fish down a cormorant’s

throat (if his theories held)—amended his
math with a constant that could salvage stasis,
deduced from the energy of empty space:

some force in the void, some tissue of sine waves
fathoming space and tendriling time,

turgor for the stem of existence. He called it
lambda, “cosmological constant,” (God?).
Regardless, it redeemed the heavens’ stilled shape,

till Edwin Hubble, tracking light’s long ghosts,
found the signals—like the whistle of a train receding—

fading; he found the creation of the cosmos
was still underway, and the distances, growing.
Einstein abandoned his constant at the sight

of the redshift’s peony swell.


4. Arizona, 1888

The task will be, as it always has been,
living amongst our enemies—
actual, invented. The trial will consist of
a tuliped handkerchief, of reaffirming
the fullness of the absence of matter, all
so that mirrors in the vacuum’s immaculate cusp must
shudder toward touch, half-pantomimed, silent,
no air heir to the sound

as Emery Goodfellow found, crouched close
to the victim’s chest in the Tombstone heat,
a hush of guilt replenishing the world
like echoed figures from a window’s glass,
that temperature shaking with mirage,
strange, soundless pane.

He would see at that shoot-out how a man could die
by the tunneling thrust of an entry wound, yet
not shed one blood drop nor sustain
any puncture of the skin—just an eerie bruise,
perforation of the lung, though the bullet proved
incapable of piercing what the breast pocket held:
thin sheath for the heart, one handkerchief’s square,
unscathed, of folded silk.

Soon Reverend Zeglen wove, from these notes,
a vest of silk that could greave the chest
from bullets of the era—though invention kept
accelerating death and precision, though chance
often played a part. The archduke’s car
took one wrong right turn down a side street, stalled
its gears in reverse near a sandwich shop
where Gavrilo Princip was eating, having thought
the plans were off for the day, and although
under Ferdinand’s dress coat was buttoned a vest
of this bulletproof silk, the assassin missed
his aim, in his rush out of Café Moritz—
wife in the abdomen, heir apparent
in the neck.

In the three years following the Second World War,
they returned to the question, what after everything
of matter is evacuated, everything but mirrors?
What, in the nakedness time and space precipitate?
What might interfere, formless thrust, toward transformation?

Wavelengths held at zero-point, where
all sums seem to cancel sums,
in equilibrial détentes—existence, as a system, closed—
are vacuum energy.
(Though slowly, now, our doubt renews in cosmic equilibrium.
Some egress stitched between the worlds?
They speculate the Casimir Effect is wormhole’s food.)

Some particles are virtual, but for those real, their amplitude
of nonexistence ceases to cohere
with that which Is.
Some bullets kill outside the clothes: how strange,
at rest in flesh, at rest in death, the body, whole.


5. Instar

The eggs give way to the larvae, starved
to multiply ten thousand times
their own initial size on just
one kind of leaf. Their jaws are like
the panic of collapsing stars. Five times
skin’s cramped horizon splits
a last restraint, molts free . . .

till, finally, through their spinnerets,
salivary ooze is channeled
to a one-mile strand. They wind
themselves inside their own insides,
that warp all warp; they toss their heads,
bull-like, in frenzied figure eights,
mute signal of infinity . . .

and in the vacuum, infinite,
the resonating energy
but toward the aim of measurement,
its difference is the one concern,
a cipher tucked against the breast,
ten nanometers’ interval sufficient to compel
the mirrors face to face with what

remains remaindered by the true
restoring force, like appetite
abhorring vacuum’s hunger pangs
to shuttle through the body’s loom
the fodder’s con-man handkerchief—
digest, excrete the uncut thread,
the worm whisked up its own damp sleeve,
the bullet sunk three inches deep
as blood floods through the lapsing chest
but does not spill, the lead slug swaddled
in the zero-sum cocoon . . .

and there, cell death: a transformation
wreaked by its digestive juices.
Self, self-eaten, gummed, corroded
in that perfect crucible,
its ledger’s tally neatly balanced,
would emerge, if this completion
did not cut those precious threads.
Thus, all are boiled alive—but if
some few are left to tunnel free
the moths that tear their shrouding husks
are gypsum white, their jaws fused shut:

some saved things still are lost.
Death has no mouth.


© 2010 Beloit Poetry Journal       Design by Jim Parmenter