Like Ron Mohring, I am responding to Oliver de la Paz’s 2015 Summer Reading Challenge. A good idea I hope will go viral. I can’t resist lists. Here’s the gist — make a list of fifteen books to read between now and the end of August. Three books from your list should be poached from the lists of others. So it will be helpful to keep linking to lists you know of, I guess. As you finish a book, post some kind of…response, commentary, review, what have you.
I aspire to read more than this over the summer, but this feels like a strong start. And I know I’ll be loving reading others’ lists, so link ’em up! I’m adding the ones I know of from time to time below my list.
Here’s my list — 2 nonfiction & 13 poetry:
No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture (Matthew D. Tribbe)
The World Without Us (Alan Weisman)
Bluets (Maggie Nelson)
Hoodlum Birds (Eugene Gloria)
The View from Saturn (Alice Friman)
Our House Was on Fire (Laura Van Prooyen)
Talismans (Maudelle Driskell)
Twine (David Koehn)
The New Testament (Jericho Brown)
Bloom in Reverse (Teresa Leo)
Mimi’s Trapeze (J. Allyn Rosser)
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (Ross Gay)
Slant Six (Erin Belieu)
Last Psalm at Sea Level (Meg Day)
How to Be Drawn (Terrance Hayes)
Others who have made lists for this challenge — please add your link in the comments if you join the challenge:
Forty-five years ago this month, the “failed” Apollo 13 mission actually became “NASA’s finest hour” because of the incredible creative and technical work done by so many folks to bring the crew back home. The story of Apollo 13, which first unfolded the week after I was born (!) was what first inspired me, years ago, to retell some Apollo space program stories via poetry. In the spirit of turning failures into successes, and in honor of the great feats of Apollo 13, here’s one of the poems.
To make it home, they had to keep
hurtling away from Earth, gathered by gravity
into lunar orbit, the dark side never
quite this dark before.
Until the final burn they wouldn’t be allowed
to hold Earth in the window, where it belonged,
to burst towards it rather than let it fade
over their shoulders, shrinking to moon-size.
They had to turn their backs on home
and trust the stripped-down physics
of momentum and return. They had to surrender
to the old forces and attractions.
To make it home, they had to fly away
from every instinct urging them to turn
around right there, as if the crippled craft
could turn on such a thin dime.
They had to believe in the machine,
that the spindly lunar lander as lifeboat
could do everything it wasn’t designed to do —
like them, it was supposed to go to the moon.
The nature of the adventure shifted
from the journey to the return — coming home
was the new, untried frontier
as Cronkite called the play-by-play.
To make it home, they had to resurrect
the old imperatives, re-enter the race
that had already been run and won,
they had to want to make it home
like they wanted to make it to the moon.
–Liz Ahl (originally published in Salt River Review #38, 2010)
Tomorrow, April 18, is Record Store Day all across the globe. Vinyl records are definitely worth celebrating. I wrote this poem (inspired by Record Store Day) a few years ago, and I’m sending it out to all the vinyl-philes, and to the record stores that stand out in my own experience/memory — Homer’s in Lincoln, Nebraska and Pitchfork Records in Concord, New Hampshire, in particular).
Your Record Store
The one just barely breaking even downtown,
holding out across from the town common–
the one that deals almost exclusively in vinyl.
The one run by guys
who may or may not truly revere the analog,
who may or may not have Opinions about digital,
about the ephemerality and soullessness
of the download, et cetera, but who spend
whole shifts DJ-ing the store, music reaching
to the vintage pressed tin ceiling, rolling
down the aisles of milk crates.
The only playlist’s already printed
on the black disc’s swirling eye; any shuffling
requires warming up the second turntable,
which is do-able, but why disrupt
the string of songs assembled
in that order, for your pleasure, by artists?
At the coffee shop they give you the bum’s rush
if you don’t keep plugging the refill meter
to buy your tabletop and free wi-fi,
and the boutique saleswoman gets nervous
if you examine every shirt she’s got in stock.
But here, it’s understood you could spend
unaccountable hours flipping, flipping, flipping
through the bins, drunk on musty liner notes,
inspecting for scratches. It’s a good
Saturday afternoon’s labor, thumbing your way
from A to Z, across the vast archipelago
of genres and sub-genres–the taxonomy itself
a kind of music. You’ll always find something
good to spin here, an hour-long dissertation
on Miles Davis or Husker Du, or another album
demanding that you take it home, begging
for your needle in its groove.
Last year, I drafted a poem about one of my favorite Gemini anecdotes — astronaut John Young’s pastrami sandwich (procured by Wally Schirra, I believe) smuggled aboard Gemini III and shared briefly in zero gravity with Gus Grissom. The draft didn’t satisfy, though — it was missing (among other things) a “way in,” a reason to talk about the sandwich beyond an admiration of early astronaut shenanigans. This week’s SpaceX launch provided the traction I needed. Here’s the new poem. Hope you enjoy!
As the SpaceX resupply rocket blasts skyward,
carrying, among the tightly packed necessaries,
a specially-engineered, zero-g-rated, NASA-approved
to the International Space Station,
where, for four months, an Italian astronaut
has gamely choked down powdered coffee’s facsimile swill,
I think of John Young’s pastrami sandwich–
unapproved cargo, smuggled aboard
the first manned Gemini flight fifty years ago,
unwrapped briefly in orbit, shared with Gus Grissom,
then re-stowed after its weightless crumbs
threatened to infest the electronics,
leading to the required dressing-down from higher ups.
Fifty slim years stretch between
the contraband sandwich — bread broken
in cocky American jest by Cold War fighter jocks —
and this twenty-first century joint global venture
to bring properly-brewed espresso
to a crew of three Russians, two Americans,
and especially one Italian, also a fighter pilot,
running key experiments in her microgravity lab
all those long months without the aid
of the proper fuel.
When I first saw the Saturn V rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, I got a little choked up. To my mind, it remains of the most important and awe-inspiring machines of the modern era. It’s a beast, the workhorse that made escaping Earth’s orbit and getting to the moon possible. Friends who know my space program interests often ask if I ever got to see a shuttle launch. While I’m sure that those launches inspire awe, what I’ve always fantasized about is being able to travel back in time and see a Saturn V go up.
Plans for an SLS (Space Launch System) that will match and perhaps exceed both the Saturn V’s height and its thrust capabilities are well underway at NASA. Is it possible that something close to my fantasy could come true? We’ll see. In the mean time, here’s a new poem for my favorite rocket. I have an older poem about the Saturn V, but I like this new one better. Isn’t that always the way? Hope you like it.
Unlike grief, escape
has only three stages,
and each stage is named
the first stage seething
with liquid oxygen
and kerosene then
the ululating flames,
the fat blast’s thunder
the second stage
after the brief pause
pushing its burn
nearly seven minutes
the third stage
the bullet’s piercing tip
fires twice: once
to lift itself into orbit’s
and once more
to knock a hole
through gravity’s skin
and slide past it
von Braun’s monster
will devour your denial
incinerate your anger
promise you nothing
depress you so firmly
to your seat you might
like grief, escape must end
in acceptance–you must
buckle in atop its scream,
fasten your hopes
to its eleven engines
you must calmly ride
its barely-controlled explosion
all the way past abort–
and then you must accept
momentum’s proffered hand
into the void.
After quite a few years away, I’ve returned to working on my series of poems inspired by NASA’s Apollo space program. (Also inspired by Mercury and Gemini, of course!) Lots of interesting U.S. history, pop culture, technology, and lore to explore. You can read a couple of the other (older) poems from the series here and here. This is brand spanking new, but I’m happy enough with it that I feel like putting it out there, at least for the time being. Enjoy!
–Apollo 8, December 1968
Not the showy drama of ignition
and liftoff, the Saturn V’s great flaming hoist
shaking tiles off distant ceilings,
everybody watching, binoculared
in grandstands, clapping, or everywhere else,
via television. Not the awe of arrival
to the moon, the close-up craters and rilles.
Not the transcendence of earthrise
over the lunar horizon, the famous image
captured for the first time and beamed home —
not even that disconcerting sense of ourselves reversed,
newly displaced, made so small and fragile
by this alien point of view.
Not all those moments everyone knew
were moments, but instead, the capcom
giving the call: “Apollo 8, you are go for TLI,”
plain words and a quiet acronym:
trans-lunar injection, the last rocket’s last burn
that sent humans for the first time
out of earth’s orbit, past escape velocity,
wrenching them free of the outermost layer of home.
They say, after the burn sent the three men moonward,
Gene Kranz, who knew the secret magic
packed inside all the calm acronyms,
had to leave Mission Control, to step outside,
settle down, pull himself together.
After TLI, we spoke no more of how high,
measuring instead and marveling at how far,
the unspeakable, still-unfolding distance.