She rides her solitary orbit
Far from Rigel,
Seeking by night
The starry wheel.
Adrift in ancient seas,
It marks the long year round,
Nine on the rim,
Two at the hub.
Knows neither port,
Rigel had only one association: Sim's death. But what did the rest of it mean? The notes suggested that the poet had considered the work complete. And there was no evidence that the editors found anything baffling about it. Of course, one almost expects to be puzzled by great poetry, I suppose.
According to the introduction to Dark Stars, the first volume of the series, Walford Candles had been a professor of classical literature, had never married, and was not appreciated in his own time. A minor talent, his contemporaries had agreed.
To us, he is a different matter altogether.
The poignancy of the sacrifices required by the men and women who fought with Christopher Sim shines everywhere in his work. Most of the poems in Dark Stars, News from the Front, and On the Walls purport to have been written in the Inner Room on Khaja Luan, while he waited to hear the inevitable about old friends who had gone to help the Dellacondans. Candles himself claimed to have offered his services, and been refused. No usable skills. Instead of fighting, his part became merely
To stand and count the names of those
Whose dust circles the gray worlds of Chippewa
Candles watches from a dark-lit corner while young volunteers hold a farewell party. One raises an eye to the middle-aged poet, nods, and Candles inclines his head in silent salute.
On the night they learned about Chippewa, a prosperous
(From the Ace paperback edition, a later version of which can be found here.)
When I crack open a science fiction book, I'm generally not expecting to find a poem as the first thing on the page. But here it is, an ode to a woman or perhaps a ship, adrift somewhere among the stars, restless and driven, forlorn perhaps, or hungering for something?
Then we hit narration, and it's clear right away that the narrator is trying to decipher this poem, which is related to someone's death -- Sim. By the end of the page, we know that this is Christopher Sim, apparently an important figure in some interstellar war, and one of its casualties as well. And we see hints not only of a grand and sweeping conflict, now long in the past, but also of a richness and reality to that conflict, because the main focus here is not a battle or a fleet or a leader, but a poet, left behind and using his own ill-suited gifts to do the only thing that he can, which is to chronicle the spirit of those doing the actual fighting.
What I love about this page is that absolutely nothing happens, and yet it simply explodes with understanding. You can't read it without knowing that there's a mystery afoot here. The narrator is on some intense search for knowledge, and both the poem and the war-torn historical epoch from which it comes must factor into the mystery. In a single page, the writer lets us know that this is a book full of resonances, packed with history, suspense, stirring military conflict, pathos, and even verse.
If you can read this page and not want to know more about Christopher Sim and his war, about the mysterious woman or ship adrift in the poem, and about why these things have importance and immediacy for the narrator, then you're a different kind of reader than I am.