Making it home, April 1970

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.


–Apollo 13

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)

A poem for Record Store Day 2015

Yours truly, in Vientiane, Laos, 1974 or 1975, rocking dad’s headphones.

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.

Espresso & Sandwiches in Space (a new poem)

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!

Progress, 2015

As the SpaceX resupply rocket blasts skyward,
carrying, among the tightly packed necessaries,
a specially-engineered, zero-g-rated, NASA-approved
espresso machine
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.

Saturn V — a new poem

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
sucker punch
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
temporary doldrums
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
stop breathing

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.



A new poem

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!

How Far

–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.

Catching up on catching up on more (more) reading


Lucky duck that I am, I was able to spend another four weeks (Jan/Feb) at the Playa Artist Residency program. That’s the pink view from my desk there one afternoon. Once again, I brought some literary journal reading to catch up on — and once again I read some stuff I feel moved to share, to encourage MORE reading. And literary magazine subscribing. And enthusiastic (re)sharing.

Crab Orchard Review continues to be a reliable source of memorable poetry! From the Winter/Spring 2014 issue (19:1), I want to recommend “Deer Rub” by Sara Eliza Johnson, with its sharp couplets of terrific imagery and its canny movement from the deer, widening to a consideration of war at a global level, and panning over seamlessly to a more interpersonal notion of warfare. What a poem!

Another poem I really liked from that issue was “Nuclear,” by Steven D. Schroeder. I just got a kick out of all the wordplay, and how that “play” was part of a larger manipulation of tone that veered from technicolor fifties and sixties imagery and allusion to the philosophical darkness of the nuclear age. It’s also a poem that does some things I aspire to do in poems — and of course it is also interested in history, which I am, and interested in a part of history I’ve also written and thought a lot about. Right in my wheelhouse!

Finally, “Killed Boy, Beautiful World” by Lauren K. Alleyne. This poem articulated so well, so perfectly, the mashup of agony and beauty that is living, especially in a world that can seem full of nothing but death. It’s a poem that ends either in a moment of transcendence, or a moment of surrender. I’m not sure which. But, wow, it’s a poem I’ll be sharing with others for a long time to come.

These poems are not yet available online — eventually, Crab Orchard Review will post a PDF of the issue online, but don’t forget that YOU, TOO, can have great poems delivered TO YOUR HOME by subscribing to COR, or other journals.

Another journal I brought out to Oregon with me from my gigantic New Hampshire home-pile was Measure (8:2) from 2013. For those who don’t know, Measure is a journal devoted to poems written in traditional form(s)/meters, like the sonnet, or rhymed/metered couplets, etc. There were three particularly fun parodies/responses to famous poems. Kathleen Naureckas wrote a kind of rejoinder to Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse,” taking on the point of view of the parents. The first line: “They fuck you up, your girls and boys.” Alan Nordstrom brings us “Sonnet 130a,” again with an interesting switch in point of view — not the “Master,” not the “Mistress,” but their dog. Martin J. Levine re-imagines Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death” as “Stop for Death,” in which Death gets stuck in traffic.

Finally, I wanted to mention a poem from the October 2014 issue of Poetry that I kept paging back to, drawn by the rhythms, the dynamic lines/stanzas/syntax, the sometimes weird images. I’m not sure what else to say about “In the Woods” by Kathryn Simmonds except that it totally had my number.

I’ve gotten into a habit from my youth — I cut these poems out of the magazine pages and scotch tape them into my current writing notebook. It’s nice having good work close at hand. Thanks, poets, for writing it.

The Last Man on the Moon

On December 11, 1972, 42 years ago, Apollo 17 landed on the moon. It was the final Apollo mission. I have long been obsessed with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions; with the space race to the moon. So obsessed, that I have a whole series of poems on this subject. It’s a series I’m still working on. Here’s one of the early ones, a sestina about the Moon Shot. Here’s a more recent one, in honor of today’s anniversary:

Last Man

            for Eugene Cernan

The politics of timing are a boon
to famous men like Armstrong who got there first.
Who knows the name of the last man on the moon?

Remember winners, the heroes of high noon,
spotlit by lucky honor, fit to burst.
The politics of timing are a boon.

History might have whistled a different tune,
or things that went badly could have gone much worse.
Who knows? The name of the last man on the moon

doesn’t inspire the awe-bedazzled swoon
of Armstrong. Strong-arm. One step in the dust.
The politics of timing are a boon

to men like him. The stories that balloon
from chance to headlines shout about who’s first.
Who knows the name of the last man? On the moon,

the footprints of Apollo are cocooned
from passing time (a hero’s only curse).
The politics of timing are a boon.
Who knows the name of the last man on the moon?