Lowell’s Mars

Lowell’s Mars


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

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