July 10, 2020KR Reviews

“Make This Sol a Clear, High Note”: On Mars Travel and the Post-Apocalyptic Earth in Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers’s The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons

Cincinnati, OH: Acre Books, 2020. 86 pages. $16.00.

In The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons, Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers’s second collection, we leave Earth, our once-home, a “flickering, lost blue pilot” and travel “within the ship’s sure body” to Mars, an empty hostile planet of “dune and dust,” “a world as red as that // inside our bodies.” On Mars, there are no green plants or blue water, no animal others. In tercets that begin on the right side of the page and terminate on the left, Rogers reverses our familiar reading pattern and describes how familiar phenomena, like sunrise and sunset, have on Mars become unfamiliar—

                                                                            this pair of weary moons:
          the first one painfully slow, a pinprick

                                                                                                                       taking three days
                                                             to move across our vision.
The second, Phobos, is the western origin of fear.

                                                                                                  Misshapen, mold-gray.
                                                             Every four hours, it rises
          like the last potato of the famine.

Time and orientation are also made anew, “a star wheel / replaces the wall calendar: / time’s squares redrawn / with spidery legs, framed in concentric circles,” and “Somewhere north / you cannot point to, now that the graph / has shifted.” Mars is not readily hospitable, as Rogers makes clear in “Ecopoiesis, the Terraforming,” one of my favorite sequences in the book. “They said we could bring nothing with us. / That we would fashion a new / world, start from the lichens up.” “Breathing requires violence: / the red planet’s hyle / split back to the atom.” Terraforming, transforming red to blue and green, will be a long, arduous transition. Similarly, Rogers translates the other-worldly, and the discourse of astronomical science—“redshift,” “astrobleme,” “regolith”—into innovative and sensorial lyrics. Her lines contain enough familiar touchstones, however, that readers won’t lose their way in a gloss of unknown terminology.

We don’t experience the Earth disasters that preclude the colonizing mission firsthand: instead, we learn of them after through glimpses. Memories like those recalled in the “Backflash” poems, and comparisons of the two planets, “the old world, what was swallowed / by heat and storm and saltwater” and “But dust-free is / so rare in this world / that clarity is a lavish color.” We experience the aftermath, post-apocalypse. In both instances, the backward glances to Earth history and the forward marching Mars colonization, we learn about bodies: land bodies, “Land, was a throwaway word”; bodies of water still liquid or long dry, “Each had its memory / of water, rust like a bathtub’s ring”; human bodies “But every human body / is a disaster, the fallout from old stars”; planetary bodies, moon bodies, the ship as body, and plant and animal bodies, “Dead fish float / to the top, rafts with their silver sides up.”

Rogers examines colonial histories and wonders if that same violence, those same injustices masquerading as progress, will be repeated on Mars, “like the first world, all new names / spring from nostalgia, / recall X’s on the emigration map / and erased trails of salt.” “We come in peace / Curiosity says. But that’s how / all our ships began.” Coupled with this colonial history is a history of ecological imperialism. In “The Northern Lights, as Seen from Mars,” Rogers constructs an Earth-elegy in familiar, right-justified tercets. Line and line-break slow our reading, draw out her myth-metaphors, and postulate humanity’s crimes and losses in an intimate and non-didactic tone:

Even in the myth, the snake
learns to bury her purse of eggs.
In our human memory, still,

those hills and impossible
blue-green distances
recall an old-world name,

Virginia. It arrives as beads
of sweat and sand between
the teeth and then the moaning

floorboards of ships, sails’
cruel whipping. Whose
father mapped these

degrees, each dell and vale?
As if water and not land,
that terrain, ribbon by ribbon,

was greedily siphoned away,
all the while still breathing
with its Native names.

The “floorboards of ships, sails’ / cruel whipping” references the transatlantic slave trade, and Rogers’s line work evokes more than sails blowing in the wind. The break after “sails’” disrupts the phrasing and places “cruel whipping” on the subsequent line. These are ships carrying human chattel, slaves that will be whipped on “virgin” land. “[T]hat terrain, ribbon by ribbon, // was greedily siphoned away, / all the while still breathing / with its Native names,” conjures the European settlers’ original land theft from Indigenous people. Earlier in the book, in “Columbus, Mars” Rogers writes “Out of thin air, we became / toponymists, touched every place / we’d named.” The name “Columbus” is now a place on Mars. Within the framework of place names and their significance, Roger seems to answer her own question:yes, the dominance of Western ideology to the annihilation of all else will be duplicated on new ground.

Rogers’s Mars mission poems are all the more notable because our pilot is a woman. Scattered throughout the collection are a series of “Backflash” poems, a number of which grapple with female themes including the female body, love between women, and female sexuality. In “Backflash: Hinge” the speaker reimagines herself before birth, before having a determined sex. She writes in left-justified, stair-stepped, tercets, “If I could turn / back—not girlhood, but before— / I’d be an oyster’s // spit-sheen, drift first as a spat,” and “starting here, at the hinge. // In saline, where the first / attachments form, but before / the complications // of buckling / down in bed.” Then later, including the only two couplets in the poem:

                                    Before the snare
                                                  of sex—Cross your legs

or It’s not personal—I’ll learn a self-
                                                            reliance. I’ll fashion

two hard lips
                to house my feeler
                                         and lacy mantle.

                Landing, we block out
                                         euphemism: no “naughty pearl,”

                “no-no button,” or
                                         “little man in a boat.”
                                                                                There’s not a language

                where we latch. Just laissez-faire
                                                                      anatomy, and watered sounds
                                                                                                                we don’t decode.

Nearly every line, every image, has a double meaning; the extended metaphor of an oyster and its anatomy compared to a woman’s sex is carried through to the end. “Landing” could signify an oyster drifting to the sea bottom or her future spacecraft landing on a new planet or even, adulthood, a post-puberty “landing.” After “landing,” the “euphemism[s]” or slang terms are only “watered sounds.” Being female requires a hard shell and a deep inner ability to “filter / slime” and “slung mud.”

The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons contains many more themes than the few I have highlighted: sailing and flying; color and language; cartography and geology; physics and music; and religion and myth. Each subsequent reading reveals more layers, complexity and ingenuity and consistently arresting images and phrases. These poems predict one unlikely version of our near-future and moreover warn of the likely devastation of our current path. Rogers writes, “This time, we’ll form more carefully.  / We’ve started on empty / plains. We’ll vaccinate. We’ll make the new deal fair.” Our lives are so small in the span of space and time, yet so miraculous: “I revere my own dark matter” and “fear wind will split / words back to their meaningless elements, / carbon snapped from oxygen, the tilt torn / away from the seasons.”