Mining Wilson’s “Black Astronomy”

If I asked you to read a poem titled “Black Astronomy,” what would you think it was about?

Recently I encountered a poem so titled. Published in 1930, the poem was new to me. So was the poet, John Minnich Wilson. I admit, coaxed on by present-day social and political tensions, I assumed the poem would focus on race. And why not? I’m game for poetry that simultaneously tackles racial and scientific themes. But Wilson’s “Black Astronomy” delves into a topic other than race.

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Coal miner in Kentucky, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, NYPL

I recommend “Black Astronomy” as a gritty rendering of the literal underworld. The poem is short, accessible, and to the point. You can read a free digital copy on the Poetry Foundation’s website:

Black Astronomy

“Black Astronomy” pulses with cadence, delivered via the taunting words You, I, A, and Come, but most powerfully with You. The poet Wilson worked as a coal miner, even coming to be known as the Mining Poet. Certainly, the poem’s subject material brought him pain and darkness at times. But it also brought him revelation covered in star stuff.

Like scientists Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Wilson invites the reader to a place of intimacy with the cosmos: “Come with me into the core / of yesterday…” Though it might be more accurate to say the poem’s gruff tone taunts astronomers. The cultural gap between elite academics and working class coal miners seems overt, even if specific motivations for it are left unspoken by the poet. Still, this makes for a dynamic and readable poem.

Questions for Comment

  1. I used the word “gruff” to describe the tone of “Black Astronomy.” How would you characterize the poem?
  2. What images in Wilson’s verse struck you the strongest? Why?

Further Reading

Indiana State University Library has an electronic copy of Wilson’s poem “Emancipation.” Similarly themed to “Black Astronomy,” it blends astronomical imagery with strong religiosity.

If you’d like to explore another science-themed poem, read my previous post:

Poe Sonnet Spins Science as a Buzzkill

“Aftermath: Life Debt” in a galaxy close, close to here

Life Debt (Star Wars: Aftermath, #2)Life Debt by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“And then, as if by miracle—or by the Force or whatever bizarre cosmic authority governs the weave and weft of the galaxy…”

To a Star Wars fan there ought to be no question what or whom governs the galaxy. It must be the Force, or perhaps those who use it. Yet Chuck Wendig, author of “Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt,” lets float some skepticism through his third-person narration. Critical to note though, the narrator’s quote above closely follows the cunning mindset of Sinjir, an ex-officer of the evil Galactic Empire.

Sinjir, who also appeared in the first Aftermath novel, teams with a small ensemble of good guys. Their struggle takes place directly following the events of “Episode 6: Return of the Jedi.” Sinjir and the gang hunt down enemies of the New Republic like so many Nazi war criminals on the run. And as the plot escalates, Sinjir feels as if he is contending with the very galaxy itself.

When I cracked open my copy of “Life Debt,” I gave myself a supplementary reading exercise (cuz I’m an English Major and reading for enjoyment just ain’t enough). My plan was to track references that illuminate what the galaxy means to Star Wars characters. As a space enthusiast and NASA geek, I often ruminate on what our real-life galaxy means to humanity. By comparison, what does the Star Wars galaxy mean to its heroes and villains? Like me, do they find the cosmos romantic?

Not especially. For Star Wars characters, space is largely just a means to an end. For Imperial officers scrambling to retain power, for rebels founding a New Republic, for exotic lifeforms whatever their persuasion, and certainly for droids slaving away, spacefaring holds all the charm of an Earth-bound freeway commute.

Star Wars characters seem disinclined to exhibit Carl Sagan sentimentality of the Pale Blue Dot kind. I’ll quash a possible exception right off. Think back to Luke Skywalker gazing longingly at the twin sunset on Tatooine in “Episode 4: A New Hope.” He isn’t marveling at the astronomical glory of the nearby stars. Rather, Luke desires to fly beyond them in a quest for human glory as an Academy cadet.

Getting back to “Life Debt,” Wendig’s characters do see metaphorical value in the galaxy. In addition to all the cosmic star stuff—planets, stars, and nebulae—the term galaxy refers to collective culture with its ships, governments, and warring factions. Star Wars characters are more than just occupants of the galaxy; they are the galaxy.

Sinjir provides a vivid example. Over the course of “Life Debt,” he and his teammates find themselves caught up in Han Solo’s quest to free Kashyyyk, Chewbacca’s home world. Learning of yet another violent outbreak, Sinjir finds himself acutely depressed. But does he blame Imperial forces for his disillusionment? No. Guess who he blames.

“Disappointment that the galaxy confirmed for him its worst self.”

Sinjir’s disappointment overturns a sense of hope Wendig proffered earlier in the novel through a bounty hunter named Jas. She joined the New Republic because of its winning potential: “Even still, she tells herself that she’s here because right now, the New Republic is the winning side. They don’t have the whole galaxy pinned down and buttoned up all nice and neat yet, no, but the stars are drifting in that direction.”

Is the galaxy a utility or an antagonist? It seems to depend on who is speaking and how things are going for them. The galaxy contains, perhaps even determines, individual and collective fate. Characters like Sinjir and Jas fret over what the galaxy holds in store for them. When the galaxy shakes and falls into disarray, Star Wars characters take it oh so personally. How dare you, galaxy! For me, it called to mind the disenchantment with which folks today utter the slang phrase “Mericuh” instead of America.

I’ve been anxious for “Life Debt’s” release, so I set out to race ecstatically through it. However, I kept needing to put it down and take a break. To be clear, the novel’s sometimes tiring effect stemmed from something other than literary weakness. Note my 4-star rating. Rather, the novel hits quite close to home. Wendig’s galaxy, in principle and theme, is not far, far way. Especially in its Interludes—chapters that function as stand-alone short stories—“Life Debt” reflects reality. In the love, fear, anger, and violence of Wendig’s prose, I see types from our non-fictional world.

To the extent that “Life Debt” mirrors real life, it falls short of escapism. Perhaps this is why I found the novel less fun than I’d hoped. Nevertheless, I enjoyed witnessing the deepening bond of characters like Sinjir and Jas as they followed in Han Solo’s footsteps. Like “Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back,” “Life Debt” showcases tightly woven ensemble action. And like that classic film, “Life Debt” contains plenty of swashbuckling fun and humorous banter. Just don’t expect pure popcorn fare. In a candid and often intense way, Wendig manages to keep this fantastical galaxy substantive.

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Meteors for Shakespeare’s King

“The bay-trees in our country are all wither’d,
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven…”

-William Shakespeare, Richard II

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“The November meteors. As observed between midnight and 5 o’clock A.M. on the night of November 13-14 1868,” E.L. Trouvelot, NYPL.

It’s “The Right Kind of Crazy,” I swear

The Right Kind of Crazy: A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes InnovationThe Right Kind of Crazy: A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation by Adam Steltzner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first takeaway from “The Right Kind of Crazy” by Adam Steltzner is this: If you want to achieve a come-to-Jesus moment, you need to un-f***-up whatever is holding you back.

Such is the brash but ultimately likable sentiment of Dr. Steltzner’s book, co-written with William Patrick. When his team successfully landed NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012, Steltzner oversaw arguably the most revered landing since Apollo 11 reached the surface of the Moon. To understand this incredible engineering feat, you should watch the viral NASA video known as the “Seven Minutes of Terror.”

Curiosity’s landing captivated society. People stayed up late to watch live coverage in Times Square. Space enthusiasts like myself followed Twitter feeds on smartphones grasped in sweaty palms. The next day, A-list comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert featured the landing on their hit Comedy Central shows. Curiosity’s landing incited a cultural crush. Society realized just how colorful, cool, and even sexy, NASA could be. However, Steltzner’s book is not a wistful look back, nor is it an especially accessible primer for newcomers.

As the full title aptly states, the book is, “A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation.” With a glaring lack of accompanying images, the co-writers impart the wisdom and perspective Steltzner gained over years of intensive trial-and-error mission development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The Right Kind of Crazy” doles out thoughtful anecdotes. Reflections and takeaways come fast and furious. Sometimes the writing exhibits a hasty, back-of-the-envelope quality. This book is not an immaculately laid out management treatise. If it were, the work wouldn’t be so very … Steltzner.

Steltzner brings a crooner’s magnetism to his thought leadership. Though often likened to Elvis, he shows a jazzy Sinatra side as well. In fact, Steltzner drops a lot of musical names and metaphors throughout “The Right Kind of Crazy.” Occasionally I would pause my reading and jump on YouTube to sample the tunes he referenced. The book, like its author, also exudes a sports car driver’s swagger.

This brings us back to this review’s opening. In the book’s first chapter, Steltzner recounts a last-minute software glitch that might have led to mission failure. He sets up a “tiger team” to troubleshoot the problem—or as he puts it, “get it un-f***ed-up if possible.” Later in the same paragraph, this team assembles to have a “come-to-Jesus session.”

It is not the last time Steltzner mixes culture, religion, and profanity to get his points across. This is not reckless communication, even if it is rather loose tongued. With this approach, Steltzner drives to the core of the book’s ethos: engineering and exploration can be good, paradoxically non-destructive, battles. He explains this after referencing another engineer at JPL who swore in a heated intra-staff discussion fueled by competing ideas.

“To many readers that may not seem like very strong language, but for me, coming from an environment where I barely met the people I was working with and everything was filtered through others, this sounded like war. It was the kind of war I wanted to be a part of.”

Elsewhere, Steltzner describes his back and forth with colleagues as punch and counterpunch, like boxers sparring in preparation for the championship bout. Fighting is a recurring motif in the book. Also recurring, quite compatibly, is the notion of engineering displaying sexy, even naughty aspects. “All engineers have lust for designs we want to see realized…” Steltzner explains in a chapter entitled “Puzzle Pieces.”

Sometimes undercutting Steltzner’s noble goals are the complex structures at JPL—both mechanical and organizational. Such complexity forces the authors to do a lot of name dropping, coupled with copious shoptalk. Sometimes it runs together. Yet, the cumulative effect is to reveal the steely beauty of custom spacecraft held together by old-school nuts and bolts. In close-quarters fashion, the book acquaints readers with passionate scientists and engineers, as well as their methodically devised robotic love children.

Steltzner’s brand of crazy rightly offsets the stereotypical notion of NASA personnel as stodgy guys in lab coats. Such a style may challenge the comfort zones of taxpayers, as well as old guard types at NASA. Nevertheless, if the incredible cultural impact of the Curiosity rover’s landing proves lasting, “The Right Kind of Crazy” may come to define 21st Century space exploration.

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Jupiter: a king crowned with auroras

“Even across the 400 million miles of empty space the planet projects its grandeur. An enormous world, hanging in the interplanetary sunlight. King of the universe.”

–Michael Byers, Percival’s Planet

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Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester).
For more information about this image and Jupiter’s auroras, read NASA’s full story.