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The Golden Record

Diagram of a diagram: if properly decoded,
the first image which will appear
is a circle. Or, go backwards.
The last image: a violin which, it seems,
can be read by music
and is only the length of a sheet of paper
whatever a sheet of paper was
in 1977. The year Jimmy Carter was elected.

The longest piece of music included is called,
in English, "Flowing Streams." Played
on the guqin, it slurs like the
human voice. Think: scale and silence, think:
vibrations and overtones, think: alone
in a desert carrying a very old instrument
swelling in the heat.

Image number 98: taken from inside the exhibit.
Foreground: elephant bones.
Large black rectangle symbolizing
museum glass, a thick frame, perhaps
bullet-proof and pressurized and
temperature-controlled to prevent
further decay.

Number 5: math Number 8: math with colors Number 105: a train with math

Jimmy Carter, remix:

We billion[s], we likely, we
rapidly hopeful messages. Construct
survives any attempt, profoundly
live, profoundly good will.

Pictured: cotton picker, grape picker, supermarket.
Recall: touching all the fruit
for ripeness. Recall:
colonial exploit, strategic
control. Whole lives spent plucking
and spinning. The juice
always so sweet against your teeth.

Pictured: the inside of a book on Newton.
Nothing about gravity.
Nothing like the stillness
of the middle of a book
cracked open like a locket.


Images are made from signals. To render an image,
scan all 512 lines vertically and left to right.
8 milliseconds per line, 8 1/2 minutes per image.

Image number 17: Cell division magnified,
the lines clarifying, separating
their soft, rounded shapes.
These are most likely
human cells, most likely

Also in 1977, not pictured:
Apple Computers is incorporated; discovery of Legionnaire's disease; Elvis
Presley's last concert; Star Wars released in cinemas; U.S. park ranger Roy
Sullivan struck by lightning for the seventh time; snowfall in Miami for the
only time in recorded history—

Sounds from Earth: wild dog, tame dog.

Blues-gospel: "Dark was the night,
cold was the ground," a metaphor.

Greetings in 55 languages take 4 minutes and 14 seconds.
The time it takes to go to the end of the driveway, pick up
the newspaper, brush off leaves, go back inside and shut
the door.

The time it cakes to steep chamomile tea.

Picture number 108: some kind of snow truck
attempting to cross
a deep ravine. Of course, it is also cold
in space and inside clouds
and in the holds of airplanes and
in the bottom of the ocean
but there isn't any snow out there.
This mutable substance—its melts,
its landscape on the landscape.

On the bottom, a pulsar map and Uranium-238. That static like a TV
no one ever unplugs, like at airport security—the sound of the wand waved over
your raised arms like a blessing. Recall also Hiroshima:
really big static. Definitely do not look at that picture. Or, picture it in the background
with a small dog in the foreground or
don't take a picture to begin with.

Do not look back.
Do not disseminate.
Do not project into interstellar space.

As one track: volcano, earthquake, thunder

As one track: fire, speech

Of Beethoven's Fifth, only the first movement,
its opening a herald, the knock of fate. His three
other movements are left out, their systematic
fragmenting of the heroic theme.

The third to last picture:
a sunset with birds. Flying
north, or perhaps
south. Over the water, there is no
register of season, just
the sun, paused, a split
yolk on the horizon.

As one track: the first tools

As one track: Morse code between
ships: recall: states of emergency, recall:
The Titanic, onset of cold shock and
cardiac arrest—ice again. Bad analogy. Try:
the bleating of sheep, their dips and pauses, the
fuzz between radio stations, lamps that clap
on and off on and off.

Jimmy Carter, in sequence:
The United States of America;
our message.

Pictured: The building that houses the United Nations
in daylight, then darkness.
When the sun hits
it is whole and smooth like a new book.

About this poem

NASA's Voyager 1 left the solar system and was the first human-made object to enter interstellar space. President Jimmy Carter authorized the launch on September 5, 1977, along with the note attached to Voyager 1, which includes the message to any who receive it, "we are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours."

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Written on 2017

Submitted by Drone232 on August 27, 2022

4:00 min read

Katie Willingham

Katie Willingham is the author of Unlikely Designs (2017, The University of Chicago Press). Willingham teaches writing at the University of Michigan. more…

All Katie Willingham poems | Katie Willingham Books

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    Which of these poets was not American?
    • A. Emily Dickinson
    • B. Rudyard Kipling
    • C. Ezra Pound
    • D. Walt Whitman