Conticinium – behind the scenes

This poem is a story that really happened. I wrote it the day after it happened. I took my youngest children to Palomar Mountain in August to view the Perseid meteor shower where they might have a chance of seeing it. The light pollution is far too pronounced where we live.

We had a great time there, even heading out to the observatory and fire lookout. We also got to meet up with my parents. It was a great, two-night trip.

conticinium palomar

Palomar Mountain – the observatory, the fire look out, and more. A great camping trip to see the Perseids.

The first night we were there, I stayed up by myself next to the fire. I had some wood saved aside for the morning. It was so quiet, and it was just great to watch the fire and look up through the tree canopy at all the stars. Even with the trees obscuring some of the view, there were so many more stars visible than by where we live. When I was doing research for Cor Caroli Regis Martyris, I found that there are something like 10,000 stars visible to the naked eye from earth under ideal circumstances, but that in many urban settings, maybe only 5-10 are visible. So it was wonderful to travel to where we could again see the stars and see the Milky Way.

As I sat by the dying fire, suddenly it got pretty dark. My eyes had been adjusting, but it suddenly got much darker. I really felt the dark suddenly step in and felt the trees around me – it was startling enough that I jumped up and threw on logs I meant to save for the morning. But now I knew what to expect – and I steeled myself against the next time the fire died. When it died again, and the night sky opened up to me again, it was a revelation.

The whole experience was magical. I did get to see 4 shooting stars on that trip. My kids got to see some. It was marvelous. (We got to hear and see many woodpeckers, too – the sound of their tapping was wonderful during the day – such a ringing, resonant sound through the woods where we were camping.) And the whole campsite on Palomar was wonderful – it was such a lovely microclimate – wooded, mountainous, delightful.

I’m so glad we went. And I got an unexpected poem out of it 🙂

BTW – “Conticinium” may be the most perfect word ever. It is a word the Romans used to refer to that time at night when all the insects and animals have quieted – it is truly the “hush of night.” I ran across the word when I was writing “Third Watch” and was reading about the different “watches” of the night when developing the concept and title of that poem.

This poem (Conticinium) used to have a brief third stanza/verse. When it was accepted for publication in Inscape, they had three editorial requests. One was to add to the title something about “fire” to help orient the reader – so it was published as “Conticinium/Alight.” The second was to eliminate the numbers that separated the verses. The first verse, “I.,” went through “the honesty of dusk.” The second verse, “II.,” went through the current ending of the poem. The third verse, “III.,” appears below. The third verse appears below because the third requested editorial change was to eliminate the very brief third verse. When I saw the poem without the third verse, I completely agreed – it was stronger.  And without the third verse, removing the verse numbers made total sense. I prefer it how it ended up after we edited it (though I retain the original title).

So even though I liked the third verse, I removed it. If you would like to know how the poem originally ended, it was this:


The next time it dies, I will lose again

     and I will find –

          still and small –

     in the hush of night.”

The poem moved from past tense, to present tense, to future tense through the poem, deliberately. Removing the third verse removed the future tense – it’s powerful to end up very present in the poem. I also like the focus landing on the (now) last line about “what will move…” So I’m really pleased with the editorial feedback and appreciate it.

And I loved that weekend with the kids on Palomar Mountain, “Perseids to the northeast, Mexico to the south.”

Here’s a bit about the original drafting work:

conticinium draft photo

The very start of drafting Conticinium – the draft started “the second time it died.” So many of the concepts in the final draft of the poem were here. In the end, the feeling of (“Intimate knowledge of the inexorable”) as in the draft above ended up in the poem, without having to actually say it – which is so much better. Better to feel it than to have to actually say it.  At the bottom left of the page is “The first time it died, I was unprepared.” That of course ended up as the start of the poem.