Peter Payack, Conceptual Anarchist, Science Fiction Poet

The Migration of Darkness

The Rhysling Award Winning (Best in Science Fiction) Poem, The Migration of Darkness

"The Migration of Darkness" as interpreted by famed science fiction artist K. Jollie

"The Migration of Darkness" as interpreted by famed science fiction artist K. Jollie

The Migration of Darkness

Each evening, shortly after sunset, 
darkness covers the land. 
     Having mystified thinkers for millennia, 
     the mechanism for this occurrence
     has now been identified: migration. 
Darkness, it has been found, is composed
of an almost infinite number of particles, 
which roost and reproduce up north
where they have fewer natural enemies: 
     Forest fires, lampposts, lasers, blazing sunlight, 
     torches, candles, lighthouses, limelight, and electricity
     are relatively rare in the polar regions. 
These lightweight bits of darkness
flock together and fly south each evening
to more fertile land in a never-ending search
for an abundant food supply. 
With the coming of the rising sun, 
they return to their northern nesting grounds. 
However, not all specks of darkness migrate. 
Some that are less adventurous
     or downright lazy
choose to stay behind. 
These covey together, in varying numbers, 
seeking shelter from the strong sunlight
     by gathering under leafy trees, behind
     large rocks, and underneath umbrellas;
      hiding in alleys, between parked cars, 
     in caves, and inside empty pockets. 
These clusters are perceived by us as shadows. 
They have a somewhat shorter life span
than those which migrate.

The following is an excerpt from "Reading the Rhysling: 1980" by Greg Beatty, Strange Horizons (June 2006)


Earlier essays in this series noted the fact that science fiction poetry operates at the intersection of several different traditions (science fiction, science and fiction, poetry), each of which is itself fraught and conflicted. However, one thing that makes an award useful is that it canonizes certain works and writers and, in the process, raises their work up for closer examination. One thing this examination begins to show in 1980 is a few independent patterns among the Rhysling winners; one might then reflect outward into science fiction poetry in general and see if these patterns dominate there as well, becoming both poetic patterns and thematic traditions.

One of two poems that won in the short poem category that year, Peter Payack's "The Migration of Darkness," shares approaches with Duane Ackerson's "Fatalities," which had won in the same category the previous year. Like "Fatalities," "The Migration of Darkness" is a single extended metaphor, and both poems are immediately accessible. They are poems that are science fictional in their themes and ideas, but which "lower the bar" for reader entry.

This is not meant as a dismissal; it takes both skill and heart to create a poem as genuinely charming as "The Migration of Darkness." In it Payack provides a single "What if" idea: what if darkness were not simply the absence of light, but a thing in itself? Darkness has often been given spiritual qualities or charged with emotions; it is the site of much disturbance. Payack taps this frequent association by giving darkness physical qualities; it is not a gap or an absence, but "is composed / of an almost infinite number of particles." This image is at once useful, startling, and informed. It matches the sense of night and shadow creeping, almost spilling in around corners, that comes with sad and scary evenings, and it also presents dark as the mirror image of light, which has been described as both wave and particle. Once presented, the image seems so logical that it poses its own rhetorical question: why can't there be particles of darkness? From there, it is but a small step to dividing and classifying these particles; one can almost imagine David Langford's wonderful story "Different Kinds of Darkness" springing from the poem.

But Payack does not stop there; he also gives darkness biological qualities. He posits darkness flies south "to a more fertile land in a never-ending search / for an abundant food supply" and describes its movement across the land as a "migration." Images of these particles swarming, gathering, and "seeking shelter from the strong sunlight" abound. In a series of simple lines, often lightly indented as if delivering asides or marking a learned speaker's cadence, Payack evokes a naturalist's approach to the actions of an entire new species. He does not stop there, however. By closing with a discussion of shadows as members of this species that "have a somewhat shorter lifespan / than those who migrate" Payack manages a startling reversal: in less than a page readers are brought first to wonder at, and then to pity, a heretofore unnoticed passing of a natural object. Here too Payack's poem functions like "Fatalities," in which minutes were killed.

Read the full article here.