Theories of Elegance

James Alan Riley


I remember the sky in Kentucky at night
cut from the horizon and hung before
the stars like comfort and desire,
our singular need for assurance.

We are told there are, in most cases,
not one star but two, lovers in constant motion
one around the other, but light too often refracts.
Distance, like memory, can be deceiving.

And so it seems that even the stars are paired,
locked in mutual rotations and whirling
through the universe in strange harmonies
we could never imagine.


Always before, when a star fell,
I thought, meteorite if it strikes
the ground among these brown hills,
otherwise, we say meteor. Either way,
the dark sky would be suddenly bright,
a camera flash behind the eyes,
and when the darkness returned, the image
reappeared of my hand reaching out
before me. It is an image of myself,
the shadow of a tree beside the house,
our lives together, the unexpected truth
in a field of lies.


I have learned the best theories
are descriptive in nature. They offer
no truth or explanation, only abstract notions
of elegance which apply to both distance
and proximity, a fraction derived
from the same common denominator, coming
and going as if light and heat
were a product, one from the other,
caught in a constant motion
but never striking the ground.


When we met that first night, it rained so hard
you couldn’t call it weather, precipitation
as the children are taught to say in school, the word
a mouthful of marbles. The rain became for us

environment. We felt our way through darkness
unaware that even the sky might fall
if we turned away long enough not to notice.
Lightning always gathers momentum.

The next morning, I found its jagged scar
on an oak so thick I could have put my arms
around the fractured trunk and found nothing.
Harmony is nature’s only true desire.

Lightning never strikes the ground.
It rises like an outstretched hand,
a diffraction of separate charges
come together in a moment of sight.


How do we explain such strange phenomenon,
this summer lightning when there are no clouds?
A positive theory of negative circumstance?
Good and evil in a binary flux of ions?
The warmth rises and glows on a horizon
spreading slow against a chamomile sky.
I touch your warm skin and settle
beneath the sheet. What arguments exist
for these lights that whisper us together,
calling us away from this Kentucky farm house
on this summer night? The only need I feel
for explanation has been explained
by the touch of your hand.
Theory cannot save us from ourselves.
We must sacrifice our bodies
to see by our own light.

From Broken Frequencies (Shadelandhouse Modern Press, March 2019) by James Alan Riley. Copyright © 2019 by James Alan Riley. For permission requests, contact [email protected]  “Theories of Elegance” appeared in The Journal of Kentucky Studies (September 1998).

Broken Frequencies, James Alan Riley