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‘Terminus ad quem’

February 5, 2012
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The spiral galaxy Andromeda: a whirl of blue gas clouds shading to purplish and white at its centre, studded with white stars.

Terminus ad quem

Then, when the lack of water killed them,
and light went through them like a knife,
there, boiling out the sap that filled them,
the last soft creatures ended life
much as they long ago began it.
Come sunset, when the silent planet
is spared the sun’s red-swollen gaze,
still trembling through the choking haze
are constellations slowly turning;
in shapes that mean for other eyes,
and none that Earth would recognise,
new stars, old embers, go on burning.
And there, a faint but gleaming scar:
the onrush of Andromeda.



Title: the Latin phrase terminus ad quem, meaning something like ‘time by which’, is used in the dating of artefacts and manuscripts to denote the latest possible production date of something. The absolute terminus ad quem for any human artefact, for archaeologists of the deep future, is going to be “when the human race went extinct”.

6: Tip o’ the pen to C.S. Lewis. Much as I dislike his theology, Out of the Silent Planet remains one of the most unsettlingly evocative titles I have ever encountered.

14: This entire poem was inspired by an idle look at the Wikipedia page for the predicted collision of Andromeda with the Milky Way, expected 3 to 4 billion years from now. This is unlikely to bother the human race much, as all life, down to the hardiest single-celled organism, will have been wiped off Earth by the overheating sun long before Andromeda gets close, and if we’ve got the technology to dodge that bullet then a galactic collision shouldn’t be too disruptive either. I say collision; galaxies are so tenuous that it would be more like two clouds moving through one another.

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