Saturday, September 07, 2019

Words and poems by women in Dr Space Junk vs the Universe.

In my book Dr Space Junk vs the Universe: Archaeology and the Future, I start every chapter with a poem or a quote by a woman. This was something I decided to do very early on in the writing process.

There were poems and poets I already knew I wanted to include, such as the inspiring Christine Rueter (@Tychogirl). For other chapters, I had to do a lot of research to find the right fit. This, as you can imagine, was an incredibly rewarding process as I trawled through the internet poetry archive, discovering wonderful works and poets I had never come across before. There were some interesting Twitter conversations which led me to all kinds of beautiful writing. So much amazing poetry! I would have used them all if I could. (I'm very open to offers from a publisher to edit a book of women's space poetry....)

Then began the process of gaining permission to use the quotes. This came as a shock to me, as it's generally not necessary in academic writing. As my book was a regular bookshop book expected to make money, I had to negotiate copyright clearance. Sadly some did not come through in time and I had to find alternatives. Of that, more later.

Here are the poems/quotes as featured in the book, links to their full version, and a little explanation of what they mean for me.

Introduction: Looking Up, Looking Down
I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

From Ursula K Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969
Ursula K. Le Guin.
Image Credit: Dana Gluckstein / MPTV Images

The Left Hand of Darkness
is a justly renowned novel by the great master of science fiction. She explores the impacts of sex and gender on human social systems by imagining a society where neither exists as we understand it. It's what good science fiction should be: something that gives us insight into the other, and in doing so invites reflection on the causes and consequences of our own social being.

The quote implies that facts are not enough to tell a story, and facts themselves are dependent on context. I felt this was a fitting way to open the book, as I did not want to talk just about facts. I wanted it to be about the things that usually get left out of space narratives - feelings and emotions, social context, and the everyday.

Chapter 1: How I became a space archaeologist

And I am as far as an infinite alphabet
made from yellow stars and ice,
and you are as far as the nails of the dead man,
as far as a sailor can see at midnight
when he’s drunk and the moon is an empty cup,
and I am as far as invention and you are as far as memory.

Excerpt from Susan Stewart, Yellow Stars and Ice, 1982.

Susan Stewart.
Image credit:

I love this poem because it's about the distance between things that can't be measured. It seems to capture a paradox of space for me. Space can't be characterised by just numbers; its vast distances can be both infinite and intimate at the same time.

I love the juxtapostion of invention and memory. This reminds me of the Platonic theory of anamnesis: that all knowledge is just remembering what we already knew before our current embodiment.

It also reminds me of the story of little yellow droplets of frozen urine from the Mir space station, which sometimes became embedded in the windows of the US space shuttle.

It's a magical incantation too, with shades of the tarot in the empty cup, the dead man, the Moon. Perhaps I need to go back and read the rest of the poem in this light.

Chapter 2: Journey into Space

Our trajectory
the nautilus shell curved path
away from our home.

Poem by Christine Rueter, Our Trajectory, 2015

Christine Rueter. Image Credit: @tychogirl
I've been inspired by Christine Rueter's poetry and artworks ever since I met her on Twitter, and she is unfailingly generous in giving me permission to use her work. I first started to think about shell-and-space metaphors when I read Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space (1958). I had kind of hoped that the Poetics of Space would have a lot more of outer space in it than it did, but in fact outer space is folded into and interleaved with inner space if you look for it in this work.

The nautilus shell in Christine's poem is a curve both inwards and outwards. Home is the planet Earth, but also the home where I start this autobiographical chapter. The nautilus shell is the curves of orbit, the journey not to centre of Earth, vide Jules Verne, but into the infinite expanse of outer space.

Chapter 3: Space Archaeology Begins on Earth

This morning this planet is covered by winds and blue.
This morning this planet glows with dustless perfect light,
enough that I can see one million sharp leaves
from where I stand. I walk on this planet, its hard-packed

dirt and prickling grass, and I don’t fall off. I come down
soft if I choose, hard if I choose. I never float away.
Sometimes I want to be weightless on this planet, and so ...

Excerpt from Catherine Pierce, Planet, 2017.

Catherine Pierce. Image Credit: Brooklyn Poets

In the previous chapter I had talked of the moment of getting my first glasses, at age 11, and the sudden revelation that the species of bird could be identified visually while they were in flight. The other revelation was leaves on trees, which suddenly became individual and distinct. I remember so well wearing my new glasses on the drive home from Albury, the town where the nearest optometrist was, with this new vision: marvelling at all that had previously been hidden from me.

In recent years I've become more and more interested in dust (lunar, cosmic, interplanetary), and the 'dustless light' is a contrast to, for example, zodiacal light, which is the sun's rays reflected from the particles of dust between the planets. This dust is left over, they say, from the formation of the solar system.

I interpret the 'come down soft if I choose, hard if I choose' as a statement about how gravity is experienced. It's not just an abstract quality, and equation, a way to characterise different motions and places in space. It's also something all living things interact with. Pierce reminds us that we are not helpless victims of gravity. We can choose - sometimes at least - how to engage with it. Later in the book I pickup the theme of gravity in more detail. 

Chapter 4: Junkyard Earth

Strange flashes of radiation
zip through your ghost eyes
on this frenzied carousel
hurtling round Earth.
You wonder if radar will pick
you up as a spectral shadow
or dark mass. An unexplained
phenomenon cataloged and
monitored in the wasteland flux
where blackness leans into the soul.

Excerpt from Marina Lee Sable, Space Junk, 2010. 

Space junk. Image credit: University of Miami

In the book I'm trying to convey the message that junk is never just junk: how we classify it says something about our values. This excerpt speaks about the general invisibility of space junk and its ghostly qualities. It's a visual picture of what's above our heads - a high speed whirling carousel of dark objects which you can only see when they catch the sunlight. Apart from these moments, they are in darkness and beyond human senses.

Dead satellites have been called zombies. They are not buried, they don't stay put, they move. But they have no direction; there's no-one home inside. Sable evokes a colourless wasteland populated by shadowy beings whizzing frantically without purpose: damned, condemned to orbit, their soullessness threatening our souls. Space is haunted by the ghosts our past.

Chapter 5: Shadows on the Moon

The grey unknown
was acceptable for so long
but then we got close
and color leaked in

Poem by Christine Rueter, Color leaked in, 2015

Goethe's theory of colours. Image credit: unknown.
I chose this poem because it contrasts our vision of the Moon from a distance, where it appears a relentless grey, and the experience of it close up when humans finally walked there on the Apollo missions of the 1960s. There is the scientific observation of light and shadow, and then there is the embodied experience. As a former painter, I've long been intrigued by Goethe's colour theory; and although it has been heavily criticised, I think his exploration of coloured shadows has something to offer the way we understand colour on other worlds, in other atmospheres. Astronaut Alan Bean devoted his post-Apollo life to painting the colours he saw on the Moon: mauves, yellows, greens, hidden in the shadows. You can see his paintings here.

I do hope Christine publishes a book of her poetry and artworks, because it would be truly beautiful and I would buy many copies to give to my friends.

Chapter 6: The edge of known space

Black upon black, the fissure in the ice,
The outer rim where you passed
Once, but not twice.

Excerpt from Alice Gorman, Eurydyssey,  2018.

Glidden Fresh Hyacinth.
Image credit: Encycolorpedia

Originally I had wanted to use a quote from HD's Eurydice, a poem that pierces you to the core. You can find the full text here. However, I didn't get permission to use it in time. This left me with a dilemma. My publisher suggested finding another poem; but in the diminishing time I had left to both find one and obtain permission, it was a tall order. I was stymied, my beautiful scheme of women's words about to become unravelled.

I asked my esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis for advice. Her answer was: why not write one yourself? But I'm not a poet, I replied. So? she said. I thought about it for a little while, and then thought, what have I got to lose?  I can at least have a go. It doesn't matter if it's crap, it need never see the light of day....

So this is my effort above. The conceit is that it's from a longer poem - it's just that I haven't written the rest yet! I called it Eurydyssey to reference the inspiration of HD's Eurydice, and as a play on the Odyssey, as this chapter was about far-voyaging spacecraft. 

While I wanted to make it a homage to Eurydice, I also had to avoid the risk of plagiarism. There had recently been a massive plagiarism scandal in the poetry world, and many people were discussing the issues around writing something 'after', or 'in the style of', a poem or poet. My three meagre lines were inspired by a verse in HD's Eurydice:

What had my face to offer 
but reflex of the earth, 
hyacinth colour 
caught from the raw fissure in the rock 
where the light struck

In my mental vision of this verse, there is a vivid streak of blue contrasted to the dull brown fissure in the rock. I feel this to be a primeval Earth, like the rock is new, but what lies beneath it is far, far older.

The fissure in my version has riven the icy surface of Pluto, and the outer rim is the circumference of a hypothetical sphere around the planet which the New Horizons deep space probe entered briefly, before flying past - visiting only once. The rhyme of ice, twice, was unintended, but when I had written it, I thought why not?

I begged my publishers for honest feedback - would I embarrass myself by using this feeble effort? Is it ACTUALLY a poem or just some words flung together? They assured me they would never let that happen, so I was very brave and put it in the book. Now I just have to think of how to write the rest of it.

Chapter 7: Whose space is it anyway?

08 morning star song, Venus rising                         comet dust string 
to a lorikeet dawn, ironwood fire cracking, reverberation of the verse
stringybark                             sugarbag                           lines of song

Excerpt from Meredi Ortega, ‘Liner Notes, Voyager Golden Record', 2013

Meredi Ortega.
Image credit: Red Room Poetry
Meredi Ortega won the 2013 Australian Poetry Science Poetry competition with this beautiful work about the Voyager Golden Records. While so much has been written about the Golden Records, including Carl Sagan's 1979 Murmurs of Earth, and you can find the full playlist on the JPL website, one thing the records lacked was an actual cardboard sleeve with the customary liner notes.

A few years back I was researching the Aboriginal music on the records, a fascinating trail which led me to the original tapes in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. In the book, I wanted to write about how Indigenous culture intersected with space industry, a perspective I felt was often lacking in the space world. This seemed like an appropriate place to use the part of Ortega's liner notes which refer to the music, two tiny bits of longer songs by the Yolgnu musicians Djawa, Mudpo and Waliparu. The verse is so evocative of Australian smells and sounds.

Chapter 8: Future Archaeology

The wider our universe becomes due to science, and the furthest we go – we think we go so far when we go to the Moon – the nearer we need to come to the centre of ourselves in order to interpret this world, in order to find values, in order to give our lives meaning. 
Excerpt from speech by Anais Nin, Hampshire College, 1972

As an undergraduate university student, I came across the work of Anais Nin and loved it. I too kept diaries, and her early diaries in particular spoke to me. They were about the life of the mind, emotions, senses, reactions, and navigating the world as a young woman. I felt that she should be in my book somehow.

Nin is a controversial figure in literary history, often overshadowed by her lover and friend Henry Miller. I'm pretty sure, though, that she is more read these days than he is. Recently I returned to her novels, and I'm blown away all over again by how she uses language to capture such fine shades of experience. Through her words you catch a glimpse of a sensory universe like no other.

This quote comes from a speech she gave at Hampshire College in the US in 1972. It captures one of the themes of Chapter 8, about how outer space is entangled with everyday space, and its emotional resonances.

This is the full speech:

In the course of writing the book, I also realised that I needed to read more work by women in general. But that's a story for another time.