His observatory silent around him,
Wood panels glowing in the starlight,
All assistants sent home long ago,
Lowell, alone beneath the open dome
Stared at Mars and frowned.
In the eyepiece of the 24”, viewed through
Syrupy Arizonan summer air
The planet was barely round – a misshapen pumpkin,
Mottled and bruised, too ugly to be used
As a lantern on Hallowe’en; just a creamy
Orange orb with a splash of blue-white at its pole.
But now and then, perhaps once in every hundred heartbeats
Barsoom would snap sharply into view
And reveal the secret only he knew:
Its copper coin face was scratched with a cross-hatch
Of black and grey; criss-crossed with lines,
Most of them single, as if drawn with a quill,
Others double like railroad tracks.
Here and there, where groups of lines met,
Dark spots stood out starkly against the sepia-hued face of Mars.
Oceans? Lakes? Oases? he wondered –
Lowell’s knowing grins turned to groans every time the turbulence
Of the air set the image in the eyepiece trembling again,
Reducing Mars to a spasming orange stain, all traces
Of the lines erased.
Schiaparelli had seen them too, and had even given them a name –
Canali, meaning simply “lines”,
But the Arizonan knew the truth: they really were canals,
Channels excavated from a dying planet’s crust,
Running arrow straight across the great deserts of Ares
Like the Roman roads of old.
And each they snapped into focus Lowell held his breath,
Imagining the view if he flew through the eyepiece
To stand beside one of them and stare down into it,
At the precious polar water sluicing along it, splashing,
Flashing amber and gold in the cold light of the martian Sun…
For a while the world believed him,
Fell in love wioth his vision of dry-throated martians
Gulping down flaggons full of melted polar ice,
But then the first of the silver butterflies
From Earth fluttered by and their portraits of Mars
Showed the planet was dead, a corpse of a world,
And Lowell’s canals were banished into history,
To a Mars of make believe…
© Stuart Atkinson 2018