The space exploration community is yapping about exoplanets. Here we go again, making the most of minimal data, stretching the meaning of the word “discovery” to its absolute limit, taking blurry imagery of distant stars and inferring the existence of whole solar systems. What can I say? When it comes to exoplanet research, Jake Christensen is a grinch.
Yet, even as I remain straddled between the platforms of healthy skepticism and indulgent cynicism, I must also say the search for worlds around distant stars seems to be generating a lot of work for illustrators. Speaking as a creative writer, that is a mighty good thing.
Yesterday, exoplanet research added a layer of significance to a poem I encountered. The late poet Darrell Gray wrote a piece entitled simply “Planets”. It is a very short poem, only two lines long. Please follow the link below. Read the poem a few times. Then take a deep breath and read it a couple more times. Again, it’s only two lines long. Afterwards, I invite you to come back here for my thoughts and the opportunity to comment:
Initially, I disliked Mr. Gray’s poem. In particular, the word “unborn” turned me off. It read a bit needy to me, maudlin perhaps. I suspected the poet of trying to amp up the emotional value of an ordinary thought. Granting the genuine pain involved, it is quite ordinary for a person to say they feel alone. Trust me, I’m a bachelor. Even the cosmic metaphor failed to increase my enjoyment. It is standard usage for scientists to refer to planets and stars as being born and eventually dying.
But then I did what I asked you, good reader, to do above. I read the poem several times. I took a deep breath. I read it a couple more. “Planets” does something I love to see poems do. It promotes humility. It takes humility to give credence to the notion that our very bodies are like shadows of things which haven’t even come into existence. The vastness of the cosmos—the innumerable things already gone and yet to come—all but commands us to be humble.
If you enjoyed Mr. Gray’s poem, head to the Poetry Foundation website for some more samples. I especially recommend his poem “Elephants”.
I also read a tribute to him by Allan Kornblum at Coffee House Press. It’s rather long by blogging standards, but wonderful in its rendering of poets living life in the context of their poetic urges.
Now, here is a link to the NASA press release for recent exoplanet findings. Worth a look even if, like me, you’re a mix of skeptical and cynical.
Lastly, I highly recommend listening to a recent podcast from StarTalk All-Stars. I think because of the thoughtful mood Mr. Gray’s poem put me in, I found this episode, co-hosted by astrophysicist Emily Rice and comic Chuck Nice, to be thoughtful, humorous, and ultimately endearing. Listen to the romanticism in their voices.
Through stately vaulted epochs, nature lies.
Within the grand exterior abide
Its cramped curated corridors. Surmise
How densely braided narrows add up wide.
Exhaustive alcoves crib and fossilize,
With plastered captioned fact, the herds that died.
Museums grant, when sparing no expenses,
A teeming shrine of archived consequences.
Behold how dolphin skeletons must soar
To make way for hyped Mesozoic blight.
Famed Allosaurus claims the central floor;
Its Aves heirs sit shelved nigh out of sight.
Small upstart mammals loiter near the door
To offshoot hallways lined with all things -ite.
Yes, even geodes—banished to the border—
Succumb to dead T-Rex’s pecking order.
The above two stanzas comprise a partial takeaway from my recent visit to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History. I went there for a science-themed artist date, following a week which included some frustrating writer’s block. I decided to practice a poetic form called ottava rima. As should be readily apparent when reading, the meter is iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme is abababcc.
As humans explore Mars, and even the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, we hunt for the very types of things showcased in our natural history museums. Visit them. Take stock of your reactions. And if you are so inclined, write a poem after!
For more poetry-focused posts, visit the Poetry Tag.
The merits of my bawdy first impression of Moonrise stand reinforced by sampling another sensual lunar poem by Mr. Lawrence: Moon New-Risen. In that poem, Lawrence envisions the feminine moon making out with a masculine night sky. His fixation seems akin to a boy gazing at a nudie magazine. So why am I reading and blogging about his naughty poetry on Lit for Space? I blame Captain Kirk.
“They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains / the hottest blood of all…”
Captain Kirk quotes this bit of D.H. Lawrence’s poem Whales Weep Not! during Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. It’s a beautiful line and beautifully placed in the film. Kirk recites it to a lovely woman, though we should note she is also a heroic scientist to whom Kirk is indebted. Together they gaze at a pair of rescued humpback whales swimming through velvety lighting aboard a starship.
Kirk recites only the first line of “Whales Weep Not!” Wisely so. The rest of the poem ranges from highly sensual to downright erotic. It contains, among other things, a detailed depiction of whale genitalia fulfilling its biological function. Unabashedly, the poem goes all the way.
What does this have to do with Moonrise?
Without Star Trek IV’s well-placed D.H. Lawrence reference, I may never have happened upon Moonrise. I found it buried in a thick anthology of D.H. Lawrence’s Complete Poems. Thank you public libraries and interlibrary loan.
Humor me and read Moonrise again, especially if—like me—you could only see sex the first time you read it. Moonrise, like Whales Weep Not! is about much more than sex. Though it is a poem which employs sexuality powerfully and without apology. By a third reading, I caught hold of its climactic message.
The rising moon’s gorgeousness catapults both poet and reader toward a powerful notion. Within human passion, sparked by cosmic beauty, there is some quality which may hope to outlast even the literal moon’s existence. What a wonderfully defiant sentiment for a species utterly bound by time and space.
Questions for Comment
In what ways do you, or do you not, find the moon poetic? What elements of the cosmos do you find sensual, and why?
Methought I cast upon the heroine
Myself as light, like Jedi from the grave,
Whom Force to orphaned princess power gave,
And made her mortal heir of lustered jinn.
Hers, as one unseduced by Sith Lord kin,
Pined peacefully in Alderaan’s enclave;
Then verged her brow as blasted heart ash, save
A smuggler Yavin-bound her gaze did win.
I, limelight, incandesced before the want
Of martyred swains, as photons sought her face.
Dame’s valiant mien, no Tarkin star could daunt,
Became the storied visage artists trace.
Yet when her irises I dared to haunt,
She blinked, I glanced, and faded from her grace.
Poet’s Notes for the Curious:
The above poem is an homage and adaptation of John Milton’s classic sonnet, Methought I saw my late espoused saint. I set out to do a poem exploring the nature of heroines in Star Wars, but when I decided to adapt Milton’s verse, I sank contentedly into portraying boyish unrequited love. Hopefully other fan poets caught up in the spirit of Rogue One will pen rich celebrations for the growing ranks of leading Star Wars heroines.
By way of credit, the above Photoshop creation draws on three pictures I licensed from istockphoto.com: a gent portrait from Pali Rao; a lady portrait from photoaliona; and a starfield image by Natalia_80. I also used a NASA image of Saturn’s moon Mimas, rightly dubbed the “Death Star” moon.
Or is it serif shuttle font? Help me out, good reader. First, find the number seven in the above image. Hint, the space shuttle is making the numeral.
There is at least one other image from the STS-7 mission out there where you can see the Challenger’s Canadarm forming the number seven. The STS-7 crew, like any self-respecting artists, chose to autograph their work. And I’m going to say it’s a serif font, because the End effector, or hand portion of the Canadarm, provides a flourish on the 7’s tip. This is literature formed by the most famous robot arm to fly in space!
The late Dr. Sally Ride recounts this numerical photo exploit–apparently done without the foreknowledge of mission control–in an interview she gave to the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project in 2002. I stumbled onto the interview yesterday and highly recommend reading the whole thing. The back and forth between Sally and interviewer Rebecca Wright is quite conversational and very accessible to non-scientists like me.
I was overdue to spend an afternoon with Dr. Ride, if only through her legacy and her words. Here is one of my favorite quotes from the interview. Sally describes her role in the launch of the shuttle Challenger during the STS-7 mission, which made her the first American woman to go into space:
“One of the first things that I was supposed to do—seven seconds after ignition—was, once the Shuttle started to roll, to say, “Roll program.” I’ll guarantee that those were the hardest words I ever had to get out of my mouth. It’s not easy to speak seven seconds after launch.”
Following two shuttle missions, Dr. Ride embarked on a career in academia. She taught physics at the University of California, San Diego. She also became a prolific writer, co-authoring several books. Those wanting to learn more about her contributions to science and literature should visit the Sally Ride Science website.
From NASA’s website: “This image shows Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, who was also part of NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission. Ride led the Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students (MoonKAM) project, which allowed students nationwide to target lunar images to be taken by Ebb and Flow, the two GRAIL spacecraft.”
Orb. Bear your stitching
Scar. Icy shines your still life
Face. Blue clouds rejoin.
Voyager’s Neptune (mean version)
You. Bear your stitching
Scar. Icy shines your orb’s poor
Trait. Blue clouds sever.
I did not set out to write two versions, let alone a nice and mean one. As a lazy Sunday morning writing activity, I decided to compose a single haiku based on a NASA image. I chose the above picture, actually a composite of multiple images from the Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune. It includes what appears to be a faint photo-stitching line running vertically through the left quarter of Neptune. My plan from the outset was to give the poem a corresponding scar by use of enjambment, which now that I explain it sounds kinda mean. Maybe that’s why the first version I completed was the mean one. But, loving the picture and admiring NASA’s imaging talent, I kept playing till I had a nice haiku as well.