What Can We Steal From Raena Shirali’s “looking through a telescope at the moon on the day neil armstrong died”?

Title of Work and its Form: “looking through a telescope at the moon on the day neil armstrong died,” poem
Author: Raena Shirali
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem appears in Issue 3 of Four Way Review.  You can find the poem here.  (And you really should go get it.  The poem is striking!)

Bonuses:  Here is another poem by Ms. Shirali that was published in Fogged ClarityHere is a brief essay Ms. Shirali wrote about the poetry of Thomas Hardy.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Percolation

Discussion:
The narrator takes a trip to the Cincinnati Observatory on the day Neil Armstrong died and attempts to locate the Apollo 11 landing site through the lens of a cool telescope.  The narrator doesn’t seem to succeed at finding the landing site, but learns something more important about the moon and perhaps life.  I like the poem for several reasons, not the least of which is its subject matter:  I LOVE poems about space.  (I even wrote a short story and a play about a future spacebound poet.)  One of the ideas Ms. Shirali seems to reference is the simultaneous accessibility and obscurity of space and other science-type stuff.  Here is a NASA photo of the Apollo 11 landing site that was taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera.

apollo11_lro_2009193See the little yellow arrow?  That’s the part of Eagle that was left behind when the ascent stage blasted Armstrong and Aldrin back up to Columbia.  Throughout the poem, Ms. Shirali accomplishes one of the primary goals of poetry: she uses words to describe something that is incredibly beautiful and difficult to understand through the use of one of our senses.  Her description is not a rote recitation of detail.  Instead, she uses abstract language to try and communicate the feeling of what she sees:

there are two sides to everything
& one is always dark, maria,

…a contradiction, a lie of light
& dark…

I had never thought of the moon’s surface in such terms.  On Earth, there are countless hues of countless colors, but on the Moon, everything can be measured by light and dark.  How do we come up with beautiful and succinct ways to describe things?  There’s a strange alchemy that happens in the poet’s mind.  There’s no step-by-step procedure to crafting striking abstract descriptions.  I think it’s a matter of percolation combined with practice at “playing” with words.

How do we let things percolate?  Well, it’s a process that is both active and passive.  Ms. Shirali no doubt labored over her poem for a long time, jotting down ideas and actively pressing herself to come up with the right words to fit to her ideas. Perhaps she scratched her forehead while scribbling thoughts into Moleskin notebooks and wishing for inspiration to come.  This is the active part of percolation.  You must simply sit down and put pen to paper.

Then there’s the passive part of percolation.  As always, Isaac Asimov had something smart to say.  Archimedes, the brilliant mathematician, was charged with figuring out whether the king’s crown was pure gold.  Not a difficult task…except Archimedes was not allowed to melt the crown.  Archimedes did a lot of active thought in an attempt to confront the problem.  Then…one day…he took a bath.

The water in the bath slopped over as Archimedes got in. Did Archimedes notice that at once, or did he sigh, sink back, and paddle his feet awhile before noting the water-slop? I guess the latter. But, whether soon or late, he noticed, and that one fact, added to all the chains of reasoning his brain had been working on during the period of relaxation when it was unhampered by the comparative stupidities (even in Archimedes) of voluntary thought, gave Archimedes his answer in one blinding flash of insight.

Jumping out of the bath, he proceeded to run home at top speed through the streets of Syracuse. He did not bother to put on his clothes. The thought of Archimedes running naked through Syracuse has titillated dozens of generations of youngsters who have heard this story, but I must explain that the ancient Greeks were quite lighthearted in their attitude toward nudity. They thought no more of seeing a naked man on the streets of Syracuse, than we would on the Broadway stage.

And as he ran, Archimedes shouted over and over, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” Of course, knowing no English, he was compelled to shout it in Greek, so it came out, “Eureka! Eureka!”

Neurologists can tell you how the process works far better than I can, but the point is that your subconscious will work on the active thought you did in trying to come up with unique and interesting ways to describe what you had in mind.

I also loved the way that Ms. Shirali played with the flow of language in the poem.  Look at the first two stanzas.  She makes a few interesting choices:

  1. Alternating long clauses/sentences with short ones.  There’s that sinuous line about “two sides to everything,” then “maria.”  Another description and then “how dizzying.”  Ms. Shirali plays with the flow and asserts some measure of control over the reading of the poem in this way.
  2. all words in lower-case letters & lots of ampersands.  These choices invite you to read without stopping as much as you otherwise would.  The ampersands even seem like craters on the page, attracting your eye in the same manner that the craters attracted her attention when she was looking through the telescope.

What Should We Steal?

  • Take a step back, allowing your ideas to percolate.  Remember that strange alchemy; it can only occur when you’re not focused upon it.
  • Diverge from the “rules” to exert control over your reader.  When you cast everything in lower-case letters or move the words around on the stage or trade symbols for words, you are affecting the way your reader absorbs and considers your words.

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