What We Talk About When We Talk About Terraforming
Arne Weingart Reviews The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons, by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers
Acre Books | 2019 | 86 pages
An entire literary genre exists in which a series of unintended consequences for Earthlings on Mars can comfortably unfold, and said literary genre is not poetry. But that has not discouraged Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers from embracing Mars as both subject and object in her new collection of poems, The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons, and I am glad of it.
From the outside, this book’s project would seem to call for a rigorously narrative approach so that the reader can feel some measure of certainty about “where” we are and “when” we might be leaving. Rogers’s approach, with a few notable exceptions, has been to employ the intensity and focus of the lyric to interrogate “what” we are and “who” we might become in the often-imagined but essentially unknowable circumstance of life on another planet. This is not science fiction, but one is reluctant to coin a new genre—“ science poetry” —when the mission of the lyric has always encompassed the indeterminate, the liminal, the transitional, and the foreign. Why not the extra-terrestrial?
As for narrative: Earth seems to have become terminally befouled and ultimately (with the ultimatum coming soon) unlivable. Three women have been dispatched to Mars, other Homo sapiens presumably preceding and to follow, their job to adapt themselves to their new habitat and to adapt the planet—to terraform it—so that it can accommodate its new inhabitants. Children and sheep may also be involved, we’re not sure, because they appear, briefly, more as tropes than characters. From the last stanza of the book’s last poem, “Agnus Dei: Mars”:
Once, in place of the canary, we sent out a trio of women: a six-lung test, red flues open.
The younger two crossed and lived, rushed back to tell the good news. And the old one,
they call her a miracle. They say she went out singing.
And from an earlier stanza of the same poem:
This world that would not move, this world that once looked plain and red as sealing wax
covers its face with grass, with a noise like breath blown in a bottle.
This is lyric form pointing (in the way a flashing neon sign points) toward drastically altered circumstances. Unmoored from terrestrial gravity, poetic lines have detached from the page and rearranged themselves in floaty backwards couplets and triplets, right to left, like Hebrew or Arabic. Although disorienting at first glance, this formal shift begins to work a change on the reader which mirrors the shift at the center of the book’s premise. After a time, the reader adapts and comes to accept, even anticipate the lines in their typical sparseness and frequent beauty.
The poems are episodic but not bound by a linear narrative imperative, rather they accrete in flashes of lyric exploration. And their form often bends toward the utterly (and earthly) conventional:
Tonight, the arid landscape refuses any human touch. Below me, bristles of sagebrush
stay hidden, their smell absorbed by air’s chill. If you touched me also, I might
ring and splinter, as when a foot falls on a pond’s shallow ice,
my organs like koi, slow flashes beneath a winter surface.
There are poems, “Backflashes,” that point to Earth’s irremediable present. But the majority engage, not without a tentative and probing optimism, with an alien and unproven future:
This time, we’ll form more carefully. We’ve started on empty plains. We’ll vaccinate. We’ll make the new deal fair.
Until rain is reliable, we’ll modify our grain indoors. They say in meteor basins, cheatgrass will
proliferate. And if the place is both barren and virgin, there’s no such thing as an invasive species.
Something approaching but not quite arriving at humor is present in the poems “Red Planet Application” and “Lost Exit Interview.” In the former, Rogers takes full advantage of the bewilderment and bemusement we all feel when confronted with an impossibly open-ended question delivered by means of a form:
You will never see your family or friends again. Discuss.
The brush of another person is more gravity than I can stand.
Like a lantern’s metal and paper if you touch me, I may collapse. I have
sworn off skin to skin, and not just during Lent.
Inside a bubble, I prefer to drift at an arm’s length.
And from the latter:
Who or what do you blame for your decisions?
She was surely up to something. There was something she was.
She was something. She was surely. She was. She was.
Rogers’s aim is not to entertain us or serve as documentarian of Poets in Space, which is not something likely to be found on Netflix even in the distant science future. She wants rather for us to take the prospect of imminent environmental collapse and its practical consequences at full face value, even if that means boldly going where no woman has gone before. To that end, her vocabulary incorporates geology, anthropology, astronomy, physics, agronomy, metallurgy, biology, and a kind of free-floating epistemology of distance and dread. It is as though she wants to transfer to our own tongues the aftertaste of salt, metal, blood, and loneliness that adheres to her tongue and that flavors her idiosyncratic, unadorned speech. To her great credit, she succeeds.
In the poem, “Ecopoiesis,” Rogers writes, matter-of-factly, of her last look at Earth, something which would be immensely difficult within any narrative or lyric framework, but which, within the pages and poems that surround it, becomes inevitable and entirely earned:
I can’t say what I felt on my final look: the salt-swirled Earth, its impossible cobalt. But when
my eye caught its last curve, the arc of gravitas & history, I hope, also began to dissolve.
In the act of showing us what it might be like to live in a vivid if estranged lyric present, Rogers also convinces us, nearly, that the pull of “gravitas” can be escaped in tandem with that of gravity itself, and that history—that rock that anchors us to our past—is soluble in the vastness of space. Now, where was it I left my space suit?
Arne Weingart lives in Chicago, where he is the principal of a graphic design firm specializing in identity and architectural graphics. His poetry is broadly published in journals and reviews. Recent work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and he is the recipient of the 2019 Frost Foundation Prize. His first book, Levitation for Agnostics, was the winner of the 2014 New American Press Poetry Prize and his most recent book, Unpractical Thinking, is the winner of the 2019 Red Mountain Press Poetry Prize.
Header photo by Elena11, courtesy Shutterstock (parts of image courtesy NASA).