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The Flash Reverses Time

November 14, 2013

As I said in my post about How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, I love time travel stories. Last night I watched an episode of Fringe called “White Tulip” in which Denethor (John Noble) tells Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) that necromancy never pays. It’s poignant, because the mad scientist played by Peter Weller has recently learned how to bend time so he can travel through it to the moment before his fiancée dies, and the mad scientist played by John Noble has already learned how to travel in an alternate universe to the moment before the alternate version of his son will die, and is still dealing with the consequences of his actions there.

In my own attempt to travel back in time from the Saturday I spent with Walker at Oberlin watching Ender’s Game, looking at prints in the art museum, and hearing the Oberlin trio play Tower, Bach, and Mendelssohn, to the same Saturday at Kenyon, when the poet Carl Phillips gave a reading, I was in the Kenyon library yesterday leafing through an anthology which includes poems by Phillips. The anthology is called Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, and in it I found a time travel poem by A. Van Jordan entitled “The Flash Reverses Time.”

At first I thought it was about Flash Gordon, which is my own time travel version of reading the poem, since my father used to tell me stories about the Flash Gordon cartoons he saw at the movies every week, each one ending with a cliffhanger to make him want to come back the next week. It is not about Flash Gordon, though (a normal human created in 1934 as a spinoff of Buck Rogers who travels to another planet and becomes a hero). It is about The Flash, a superhero who runs at superhuman speeds, created in 1940 as a spinoff character with one of Superman’s powers. My friend Joe tells me there have been several different incarnations of this character; the one in the poem has learned how to travel through time with his super speed.

Since A. Van Jordan is an African American poet, the moment of finding “The Flash Reverses Time” included a point at which I realized that I could write about it for “A More Diverse Universe.” jpg

On a discussion board about “how does the flash perceive time?” I found out that The Flash must have control of the temporal aspects of his speed powers because it would otherwise be intolerable to be faster than everything around him and have no control over how he is able to perceive it–such a perceptual state would show things around him as immobile objects, frozen in time. He must have the ability to alter his perception of the passage of time, slowing or speeding it up in relationship to himself.

Here’s the poem, which brings time travel back from the technical level to a level of memory–in this poem, The Flash is both speaker and recollection:

The Flash Reverses Time

DC Comics, November 1990, #44
“Never Look Back, Flash
Your Life Might Be Gaining On You”

When I’m running across the city
on the crowded streets
to home, when, in a blur,
the grass turns brown
beneath my feet, the asphalt
steams under every step
and the maple leaves sway
on the branches in my wake,
and the people look,
look in that bewildered way,
in my direction, I imagine
walking slowly into my past
among them at a pace
at which we can look one another in the eye
and begin to make changes in the future
from our memories of the past—
the bottom of a bottomless well,
you may think, but why not dream a little:
our past doesn’t contradict our future;
they’re swatches of the same fabric
stretching across our minds,
one image sewn into another,
like the relationship between a foot and a boot,
covariant in space and time—
one moves along with the other,
like an actor in a shadow play—
like a streak of scarlet light
across the skyline of your city
sweeping the debris, which is simply confetti,
candy wrappers, a can of soda,
all the experience of a day discarded
and now picked up
even down to the youthful screams of play
that put smiles on the faces of the adults
who hear remnants of their own voices
through a doorway leading back
to a sunrise they faintly remember.

The word “covariant” works nicely to set the technical details of time travel against the personal memories, the relationship defined by the simile of the foot and boot, which is also introducing the idea of one moving along with the other, “like an actor in a shadow play” to give you more of an image, and then, finally, like The Flash himself: “like a streak of scarlet light/across the skyline.”

Just that fast, the poem suggests, a motion—maybe one caught only out of the corner of your eye—is a new hook on which we stretch the fabric of memory into a larger shape, one that catches on the experience of sweeping past as it continues to sweep forward. The smell of a particular kind of soda, the sound of the timbre of a child’s voice, or the sight of a brand name on a candy wrapper can bring it all rushing back for a moment.

What has created that kind of “doorway leading back” for you lately?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Jenny permalink
    November 14, 2013 4:55 pm

    Lying in bed and thinking, I’ve known this man for twenty-three years and one month.

    • November 15, 2013 8:11 am

      Anniversaries (however minutely counted!) do that for a lot of people. Sometimes on our wedding anniversary Ron used to recite the ratio of how long we’d known each other vs. how long we’d been married and how long we’d been alive.

  2. November 14, 2013 8:20 pm

    Mine is far less poetic (did you expect anything else?) — my best friend here in KS has experienced a water damaging event. Boy talk about getting yanked back in time, and I’m sure that’s a situation that would yank you back also.

    • November 15, 2013 8:09 am

      Oh no! Those two words together “water” and “damage” are ones I never hope to see together again. There’s really nothing like it.

  3. November 14, 2013 8:55 pm

    Weirdly, hand soap. There are some scents of hand soap that snap me back so hard to the way I felt the last time I had that sort of hand soap. (One flavor of Dial hand soap fills me with misery, because it’s the hand soap I was using when I was the most depressed I have ever been. :p)

    How was Ender’s Game?

    • November 15, 2013 8:08 am

      Oh yes, scented soap does that for me, too. Ender’s Game is well-compressed from the book. I’ve loved that book for thirty years, and I thought the movie did well enough. We saw it twice, actually–Ron and I went before we took Walker at Oberlin.

  4. liviania permalink
    November 15, 2013 11:49 am

    What a cool poem – I don’t think I’ve read poetry about a superhero before. (And if you’re now interested in the Flash, they’re going to introduce a version on Arrow soon.)

    I’ve recently been led back by unpacking my winter clothes. I don’t get much use of them in Texas, so they remain fairly connected to the times I do wear them.

  5. aartichapati permalink
    November 15, 2013 10:30 pm

    I think any time I interact with someone significantly younger than me, I have moments like that. I am not sure what I was doing, but recently something reminded me of the game “Concentration” that we used to play as kids and it took me back.

    Jenny, scent is the sense most closely associated with memory so it makes sense that you remember things so vividly with the soap!

    This part of the poem I really liked:
    I imagine
    walking slowly into my past
    among them at a pace
    at which we can look one another in the eye
    and begin to make changes in the future
    from our memories of the past—

    • November 17, 2013 10:19 pm

      It does ring true that hearing kids playing a game you used to play takes you back. I like the image from the lines you quote because the “pace/at which we can look one another in the eye” includes shrinking down, and having a shorter stride.

  6. November 17, 2013 8:09 am

    I’ve been having these moments more frequently, lately, but memory being what it is, I can’t name a particular time or thing that has caused a flashback for me. I remember a few years ago there was a novel with superheroes as the main characters that I meant to read but never did, and this poem has brought it back to mind. I should look it up!

  7. November 17, 2013 3:55 pm

    I can’t think of a good flashback moment, but my son is a huge fan of The Flash you speak about. I’ve been buying him the collected comics from way back when in big compendiums. I gave him one as a going away present back in September, so I suppose this whole post is a nice memory for me!

    • November 17, 2013 10:26 pm

      Aw. So the Flash gives you flashbacks to when your son was younger.
      Amazing how those moments can sometimes catch a mother unawares.

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