by James Owens


A theory called the "Shiva Hypothesis,” named after the Hindu god of destruction, holds that mass extinctions occur in startling simultaneity with the movement of our solar system through the galactic plane, a passage that is thought to perturb millions of Oort cloud comets into our path. Comets, and the mass extinctions they cause, might very well be the piston that drives Earth's biological processes. If the Shiva Hypothesis is correct, we are all just marking time until the next comet arrives.

My son’s favorite question, when he was four,
was “What killed the dinosaurs?” He knew them all,
it seemed, in their lumbering or agile inventory
of species, the bird-hipped and the lizard-hipped,
the walnut-brained and doomed, and we would read—
endlessly, Ben perched on my knees and rapt—
about their finished rule and the millennia that brushed rock
over them like a thickening of knobby paint
his heroes, the paleontologists, chipped away.
What killed them? he would ask, every night at bedtime,
and we would both pause to consider the catastrophe menu:
a comet, disease, climate shift, volcanoes.
I tried to vary my answers, but he was always sure
the disaster (from Latin for “bad star”) had dropped
from the sky into their upturned, innocent faces,
“Comet,” intuitively certain—because children
are so much more tough-minded than adults—
that it would make sense for death to come screaming
at any average moment from what might seem indifferent

                    All night, the cities glitter back at the sky,
a casual scatter of lights quickly lost if one steps away
a few hundred thousand miles. Cosmologists
speak of galaxies, and clusters of galaxies, and superclusters,
and sheets of superclusters like the Old Ones’ laundry
freshened in the 10-billion-year wind that blows
between space and no-space, or like the robes of Lord Shiva
that flutter by in his dance, and sometimes
the hem of his garment brushes the world like thunder.


The music at the quarky heart of things is elegiac.
          —Albert Goldbarth

My student from Venezuela, what did she mean, writing,
“We human beings are wound machines”?

Was she thinking of winding? And of winding down,
our wounding by “the arrow of time,” entropic creatures.
Look at this: Ben squats in the back yard, digging
with a spoon and concentrating as he shakes dirt
through a sifter from the kitchen, his tongue at the corner
of his mouth with vigilance, hunting fossils.
Somewhere inside him, behind his clever jaw
and deeper than the velociraptor, under DNA,
quarks twinkle in and out of reality, flutter
in their probability clouds and quaver briefly their little elegies,
until they are snapped back into the quantum matrix
of making and unmaking. Plying the spoon with both hands,
isn’t he an intricate knot of subatomic harmonies,
and haven’t we all started unfurling, threads loosening
like petals from a bud? Ben spins, the bucket of sifted dirt
horizontal at the ends of his arms. Was she thinking of wounding?
Did she mean that we dispense harm all around like machines,
or that our lives are the machines that make the one big hurt
we are all rushing toward? Ben staggers and falls,
giggling, slinging a thin curve of dirt across the grass,
his death, however distant that may be,
already unwinding in me like a long wound.

First published in Kennesaw Review
Copyright © 2006, James Owens

Image Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

James Owens lives in La Porte, Ind., with his wife and three children. Recent work has appeared in Pebble Lake Review, Lily, and Underground Window. His first full-length collection of poems, An Hour is the Doorway, is scheduled for publication late in 2006 by Black Lawrence Press.