John Salvatier

If only we had taller been

Ray Bradbury once explained with a poem why he writes science fiction and why space travel is so important to him. It is perhaps my favorite poem.

Text version:

The fence we walked between the years
Did balance us serene
It was a place half in the sky where
In the green of leaf and promising of peach
We’d reach our hands to touch and almost touch the sky
If we could reach and touch, we said,
‘Twould teach us, not to, never to, be dead

We ached and almost touched that stuff;
Our reach was never quite enough.
If only we had taller been
And touched God’s cuff, His hem,
We would not have to go with them
Who’ve gone before,
Who, short as us, stood as they could stand
And hoped by stretching tall that they might keep their land
Their home, their hearth, their flesh and soul.
But they, like us, were standing in a hole

O, Thomas, will a Race one day stand really tall
Across the Void, across the Universe and all?
And, measured out with rocket fire,
At last put Adam’s finger forth
As on the Sistine Ceiling,
And God’s hand come down the other way
To measure man and find him Good
And Gift him with Forever’s Day?
I work for that

Short man, Large dream
I send my rockets forth between my ears
Hoping an inch of Good is worth a pound of years
Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal mall:
We’ve reached Alpha Centauri!
We’re tall, O God, we’re tall!

I love this poem deeply for how dumb his reason is.

He’s very straightforward about why he dreams of space travel

‘Twould teach us, not to, never to, be dead

Advancing space travel is a silly way of try to escape death, but when the mind really really wants something, it clings to the best plan it can find for achieving it. Even if that plan is very very dumb.

I see a lot of honor in this poem because while many hope to escape death, few are willing to admit to themselves, much less talk openly about their dumb plan for it. Their friends and family would think they were foolish, naive and a bit suspect – only villains want to cheat death. But Bradbury was willing to dream openly anyway. His courage makes it easier for us to have courage too.

I have a similar awed respect for the child who whispers quietly to herself when she’s alone ‘I wish mom wouldn’t hit me’. They both have the virtue of looking directly at a terrible darkness they are powerless in front of and whispering ‘I wish that weren’t there’.

The poem is also tragic now that he’s dead. It reminds me of all those who have gone before me, longing futilely and silently, and now he has joined them. My mother and the many billions of other humans who preceeded me.

And hoped by stretching tall that they might keep their land
Their home, their hearth, their flesh and soul.

I, too, long to keep my soul.