By William Dowd
Thursday, June 1st
The message has been received but not yet decoded.
And so I wait.
I sit on my front steps and look up at the stars. I wish I could sight-read the unfurling sheet music of the constellations—the treble clef nebulas, the asteroid belt arpeggios, and the languorous interstellar rests.
The June night is warm and clear, but it’s late and I’m growing tired.
We are a young civilization.
Perhaps the message is a lullaby.
Friday, June 2nd
As I write this, crowdsourced experts are laboring to disentangle the message into something a poet can play with.
At this stage, I feel profoundly useless.
I find myself pacing like a family member in a hospital waiting room, reminding myself over and over that I must let the surgeons do their work.
Saturday, June 3rd
This period of bewilderment is painful but instructive.
Between the reception and decryption of an extraterrestrial message, humans will inevitably endure an interval of uncertainty.
And it’s the poets who will help us stay sane during this lull. Poets have been trained to dwell in possibility.
It’s sort of our specialty.
Sunday, June 4th
Today, while my 4-year-old nephew assembled a puzzle at my feet, I asked his mother whether he’d taken his nap yet. Instinctively, I phrased my question in a way that sailed over the child’s head.
What if a highly-intelligent extraterrestrial species purposely designed its messages to go over our heads?
No doubt the subterfuge would be for our own good.
We are a young species, and we may not be psychologically sophisticated enough to handle the information.
Depending on the message’s content, we might even throw a tantrum.
Monday, June 5th
Today, I heard a phrase used in passing by the poet Christina Davis: the secret within the shared.
Even if we think we’ve decoded the message, who’s to say there won’t be a deeper layer of significance concealed beneath it, and another layer beneath that, and another layer beneath that…
I took a drink, thinking of the task ahead.
Tuesday, June 6th
The message has been successfully extracted thanks to the work of a collaborative internet community.
We now have two images derived from the signal, which I eagerly click on.
My excitement is tempered when I see the content of the images: white dots on a dark background.
Wednesday, June 7th
Salt spilled on an ebony table.
Flecks of white paint splattered on asphalt.
A run of static on an old television as a thunderstorm rolls in.
I’ve been staring at these dots all day and I can tell you what they resemble, but I can’t tell you what they mean.
Somehow looking feels inadequate.
I wish I could feel them under my fingertips like Braille.
Thursday, June 8th
The SETI communiqué has successfully wriggled into my subconscious. When I awoke this morning, pinpricks of dawn needling through my curtains reminded me of those enigmatic dots.
Is it true that humans once believed stars were holes poked in the roof of a celestial tent?
Friday, June 9th
Today, I am staring at the dots again.
In the first image, the dots huddle in five discreet clusters; in the second, they spread in streaked bands.
Is it a star map? A galactic archipelago we’re meant to locate?
Then my mind flashes on a different image, one familiar to anyone who’s thumbed through a physics textbook—the interference pattern of a double-slit experiment.
Why wouldn’t an extraterrestrial civilization communicate in the language of electrons?
Why wouldn’t they speak in a forked, quantum tongue?
Saturday, June 10th
It’s a busy day. Distant cousins fly in from across the globe for a family reunion. Tonight, for a brief moment, my family reverses the scattering of centuries-long diaspora.
I wonder: Could an extraterrestrial message be an invitation to a reunion?
Might it come from our cousins many, many, many times removed?
Sunday, June 11th
Today, I lay in bed and listened to Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino, whose short stories served as an inspiration for “A Sign in Space.”
I was hoping to unearth, buried in the Italian fabulist’s six lectures, a key to unlock the message.
Each of Calvino’s six “memos” celebrates an aesthetic value that he believes will allow literature to thrive in the next millennium, yet they may as well be technical requirements for any extraterrestrial missive—lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency.
I found no clues in Calvino’s words.
However, he brilliantly articulates what assails the modern imagination:
“Nowadays we are bombarded by so many images…Bits of images cover our memory like a layer of trash, and among so many shapes it becomes ever more difficult for any one to stand out.”[i]
Isn’t this precisely the challenge that faces SETI—discerning a signal in a universe of noise?
The audiobook abruptly ended after the fifth memo. After a moment of puzzlement, I recalled that Calvino had died of a cerebral hemorrhage before composing his sixth memo.
We’ll never know what he would have said about consistency.
Calvino was due to deliver these six lectures at Harvard University in 1984—the year in which I was born—and it struck me for the first time that his memos for the future, his urgent bulletins for the new millennium, were meant for us today.
For right now.
Monday, June 12th
Early this morning, EMTs rushed through my front door. I stood there frozen as they shoved past me, seeking whoever was suffering an emergency.
It took me a long time to convince them they had the wrong address.
We often hope that an extraterrestrial message will contain planet-saving instructions—solutions to our existential problems such as climate change and global governance.
But after this morning’s chaos, I wonder if this hope is naïve.
What if the message we receive isn’t the civilizational CPR we so desperately need?
What if the sender is the one seeking our emergency assistance?
What if the message is an SOS?
Tuesday, June 13th
A postcard from a friend arrives in the mail.
Pictured on the front is a stone engraved with two words: ONLY CONNECT.
Wednesday, June 14th
Sketching at my desk this morning, I took a break.
I squeezed my eyelids shut and imagined that a real message has arrived from an extraterrestrial civilization.
When I reopened my eyes, everything on my cluttered desk seemed different.
Suddenly, my tin of colored pencils, which contain only 12 wavelengths of the visible electromagnetic spectrum, felt woefully inadequate for capturing the world.
My pad of cotton paper—the one on which I had just recently imagined I was committing durable marks—now appeared comically fragile. (My sketches couldn’t survive a spilled coffee, let alone interstellar travel.)
And what about my 2023-2024 planner? When I flipped through its gridded pages. every single appointment scrawled inside seemed small and utterly irrelevant.
What was the point of it all? I thought, as my hand felt for a pencil and began to sketch again, more out of habit than conviction.
Thursday, June 15th
Fifty-eight years ago, the Beat poet Jack Spicer gave a lecture in Vancouver. Tonight, I lie back in an old recliner, listening to a staticky recording of the event.
Between dry coughs, Spicer claims that poets are receivers of transmissions from—who else?—Martians.
To accurately channel these broadcasts, poets must have well-furnished minds. According to Spicer, the more languages, vocabulary, images, dreams, and sense memories we have, the “more building blocks the Martians have to play with.”[ii]
So maybe, if we continue to find ourselves unable to comprehend the Martian signal from “A Sign in Space,” we simply need to fill our heads with better furniture.
Friday, June 16th
I’m sitting on my front steps again, looking up at the night sky. The message remains a mystery, just as the meaning of any extraterrestrial postcard we receive may retain its secrets for years, centuries, millennia…
Epochs of possibility…
Eons of unknowing…
The only advice I can offer to future humans is this: If the senders are poets—and how could they not be—you can be sure that embedded somewhere in the memo will be an attribution.
Direct your efforts there.
Search for an author’s signature.
Search for a name writ in starlight.
[i] Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
[ii] Spicer, Jack. The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer. Edited by Peter Gizzi. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for Wesleyan University Press, 1998.