About two years ago, when I set up this Twitter thing for the first time, I wrote in my 160-character biography: “My inner science nerd and my inner English nerd are in constant competition for my attention.” Sometimes I think about changing it. Mostly, I don’t. It’s still probably the best way to describe the mess that goes on in my mind.
Case in point, the poetry of the shuttle launch. I haven’t been able to write anything about it, personally, but fragments of poems keep nudging their way into my head.
Going to work on Monday after returning home from the most amazing four days of my life, I walked the streets of a relatively quiet part of Chicago, at the very beginning of a particularly violent storm, and the words running through my head, on loop, were
“As if that were not enough / to make you shiver / while the angel of fate passed you over, somewhere / in New Jersey / you have Bruce Springsteen / writing songs about you and wondering how you are.”
So, my brain, why those words? They weren’t that difficult to memorize, a year or more ago when I read Matthew Dickman’s All-American Poem for a class. I hadn’t even tried to memorize them. But I also hadn’t really thought of them since.
Of course, Bruce Springsteen is in my blood as strong as Star Trek and my love of math and my very morbid sense of humor. And even with my insanely privileged middle-class upbringing (for Christ’s sake, I just flew down to Florida to see a space shuttle launch), sometimes I still feel like maybe “Badlands” could be about me. A little. And I’m mostly not ashamed to admit it.
But my memory-loop’s fixation on those few lines wasn’t just about Bruce. It wasn’t just my family, or my childhood. It was the sense that somewhere, in New Jersey or anywhere around the world, someone is wondering how I am. The sense that we are all (forgive me) connected.
It is stupid to have to say it like that, but it is true. Carl Sagan and Ron Garan and probably John Lennon have said it better. Biologists and psychologists and astronomers and poets and singers and children’s television shows have said it better. But maybe it still needs to be said.
People were following my shuttle journey on Twitter and Facebook, people that I barely knew, or didn’t know, or hadn’t talked to in a very long time. Strangers behind a twitter handle who I had been retweeting for a month and finally met in person. I feel lucky to have them all in my life, and I can only aspire to be worthy of their attention.
Or rather, your attention, if you’re reading this. Thank you. It means a lot to me to be able to share this experience with as many people as possible. In my own small way, I guess I am “writing songs about you and wondering how you are.” Even if I don’t really know you.
The VAB was filled with banners like this one for previous missions:
And of course the shuttle launch, for me, was tied to poetry. I’ve been reading Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems on and off this summer (I am terrible at sitting down and reading poetry in large amounts. Prose, I could read all day, as evidenced by yesterday’s single-night power-outage readthrough of Peter Watts’ excellent Blindsight–speaking of the neurobiology of poetry, do give it a read).
When we walked into the Vehicle Assembly Building for the first time, what came to my mind (after a disbelieving obscenity or two) was the line “This was your place of birth, this daytime place.”
The words continued to tug at my memory, so I made a note to look them up later. I turned out to have been mostly right. The actual lines were:
“This was your place of birth, this daytime palace, / This miracle of glass, whose every hall / The light as music fills, and on your face / Shines petal-soft; sunbeams are prodigal.”
Far be it from me to edit Larkin, but I almost prefer the fairytale repetition of my misremembered “daytime place.” Still. Those first lines of the poem are almost a lullaby to Atlantis, something you would frame on its wall when it goes to its decommissioned rest in its nursery at Kennedy Space Center.
Of course, because it’s Larkin, the poem later shifts, and grows dark, more appropriate for the current funding battle over the James Webb Space Telescope. (Ugh. Contact your Congresspeople, folks.)
While I searched for those words, though, another stanza from another poem by Larkin caught my eye as perfect for the launch:
“All that was hopeless / And kept me from sleeping / Is frail and unsure; / For never so brilliant, / Neither so silent / Nor so unearthly, has / Earth grown before.”
I have tried to explain to a few people since I’ve been back the utter joy of the moment of launch. I think I’ve failed utterly every time.
That many people, that happy, all in one place and in one instant–how to describe it properly, to give real-world comparisons? Because the shuttle launch barely seems to have happened in the real world. It happened at the intersection of childhood dreams and hard science, of modern physics and an ancient urge toward exploration.
Take, for instance, the applause and wild cheering at the moment of launch. I got to 3 in the countdown before I could no longer speak, and 2 and 1 were more like laughs or sobs or cheers or all of them in one. And, like everyone around me, I was clapping like mad. It was just the natural thing to do. I realized later that it was a little strange–after all, the astronauts couldn’t hear us cheering them on, and neither could anyone actually working on the launch. We were applauding people who had much more important things on their mind for the moment.
So I think perhaps we weren’t clapping for the astronauts, really, or for all the people who had made the launch possible. We were cheering simply and purely because we were happy, and had run out of conventional means to express that joy. A smile, a laugh, even tears on their own would not do. Some emotions are beyond the range of what we normally experience, and therefore beyond our normal ability to express them. We are forced to leave our everyday world behind for the world of Apollo, of stars and men walking on the Moon, of all our greatest hopes and dreams, of a world connected by hard work and love and good and bad poetry.
The shuttle launch was anything but silent. But it was more brilliant than the sun, and more unearthly than the Moon.