Journey of a
It was an important stage for me in my development as a writer to realise that poems don't just land on the page, word perfect first time. Very occasionally, a poem does find its final form quickly and needs only minor adjustments, but the more usual experience is of an initial rush of inspiration when ideas and images flow rapidly, followed by a long process of working on this 'given' material, trying to explore what it might mean. Below you can see this drafting process in action, from initial notes, followed by the first attempt at a poem, through different versions, to the finished poem as it appears in Beyond Calling Distance . These are accompanied by some explanations as to the decisions I've made along the way. I chose this poem because it changed so much over time and because the final version was arrived at partly thanks to a workshop I attended.
The poem was inspired by the Full Moon exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. The images in the exhibition were taken from the NASA archives of the Apollo missions; the artist had chosen the photographs that moved him most and then blew them up to a huge size to maximise their impact. For instance, some of the composite landscapes of the surface of the moon filled whole walls of the gallery, and the figures of the astronauts were almost life-size, giving the viewer the sensation of being part of this extraordinary experience. I knew as soon as I walked in that I wanted to write about the pictures, and so the first stage was making notes quickly, trying to capture my initial impressions.
Notebook Entry - Full Moon exhibition,
Hayward Gallery, July 1999
astronauts' boots like the built up shoes of crippled children. But
white too, with gold reflective faces. Little aerials on their
backpacks as though they're not human at all, but remote controlled
models. In a sense they are remote controlled, their instructions
beamed up from Houston, their every move watched. The whole world
became a mother that night in '69 watching breathlessly their child's
first step. The world felt a mother's wonder.
Silver nitrate - old gelatin plates. The moon looks made of film, the most beautiful black and white movie ever. You forget the need for colour in these photographs - you fall in love with the monochrome.
'A snap shot of the Duke family on the moon' - the shock of colour. A kind of pollution. Their smiles.
Lunar landscape - harrowing clarity, lit without mercy. Its pock marks - pox marks - a scarred face in white pancake make-up, cratered. But this isn't the feeling you get which is one of purity - something of great age, yet innocent at the same time.
One of the photos is of the moon from 1,000 miles away - it looks pitted and scarred like the rind of a fruit, an orange left in a bowl, not rotted, but dried to a hardness, a husk. Some of the photos of the moon close up leave you wondering if you're looking at something huge, geographical - craters and mountains - or something small - a patch of sand pock-marked by rains drops, a golf ball under a magnifying glass, the bubbles in a Wispa bar or chocolate mousse.
are empty eye sockets or black mouths - singing or screaming?
Contrast and tension between the desolation of the moon and its beauty.
Version 1 You appeared Then you left me
Then you left me
'wishing for the moon' - I want the relationship between the earth and the moon to be reversed - man wishes for the moon and gets there, only to look back at the earth and wish to go home.
I'd lifted your faces You answered them yourselves Then you left me
I'd lifted your faces
You answered them yourselves
This now has a sense of reversal - the earth pulling the moon and vice versa. Also makes the men more interesting - they fulfill their own prayers. They are both vulnerable and powerful. It's also about different perspectives, different ways of seeing - the moon landings changed our view of our own world forever. Also want a contrast between the beauty of the moon as seen from the earth and its desolation in real life - although the desolation has a beauty as well. Was the moon a disappointment? It might have been to someone living 500 years ago who thought the moon was made of silver. In the poem, the moon is prayed to, a kind of goddess, or at least the focus of dreams and desires. She was looked up to. But now the moon looks longingly at the earth - she sees the earth through the eyes of mankind - it's this new perspective that leaves her lonely. But I don't like the ending - it feels sentimental, too much of a 'romance'.
At this point I was dissatisfied with the poem, but unwilling to leave it alone. So I tried to jot down further images and ideas to see if I could break the imaginative stalemate:
the moon as a reliquary - made of silver. The footprints and the flag as a kind of saint's relics, evidence for believers, proof of a miracle:
You left as gods your pockets full of rocks.
I like the idea of humans providing their own miracles in a faithless age. The moon waiting for their return, like the second coming of Christ. 'Apollo' - a god.
movement of the poem is:
This sense of the spiritual dimension of the moon landings felt like a breakthrough, lifting the poem away from the idea of a 'love affair' between the moon and the human race which I had never felt rang true. This new element was incorporated into the third version which I now called 'Moon to Apollo' as this played on the language of space communication (Ground Control to Major Tom):
Apollo You wished for me - their gravity. You learnt to walk again You returned home as gods an eternity -
Moon to Apollo
You wished for me -
You learnt to walk again
You returned home as gods
an eternity -
This felt much stronger: I liked the idea of the relics and the ending layered references about Lot's wife turning to salt with the image of the 'Ship of Fools'. This version was closer to the complex emotions aroused by the pictures than I'd managed so far. I was confident enough in it to submit it for discussion to the regular workshop I attended.
This produced some interesting comments which can be summarised into pros and cons:
Plenty to think about! Although I wasn't sure about all the advice I'd been given, I was encouraged by the response and felt I wanted to carry on experimenting. Other poems which I've had workshopped, I've needed to put away and come back to fresh, but this one wouldn't lie down.
After pondering the comments, I was convinced by the comments on the first and last stanzas. I was also prepared to jettison the narrative voice, although there was part of me that still wanted to keep the moon's perspective. The first stanza could be cut easily, but my main problem remained how to end the poem. I thought the idea of the earth's destruction was strong, but wanted to find a way of expressing it that was more in keeping with the lyrical tone of the rest of the poem; was there something I'd overlooked in my original set of notes?
Then I found it: the photograph of the photograph. One of the astronauts, Charles Duke, had placed a snapshot of his family on the moon's surface and had photographed it. At the time, I'd overlooked it in favour of the spectacular moonscapes it was surrounded by, but now I thought about it, there was something very vulnerable about this image of a family. I liked the specificity and it also led on more readily from the idea of relics left behind by the astronauts. I tried describing it in several ways, and then suddenly the phrase 'nuclear family' popped into my mind: this suggested how man can threaten his world, but in a more subtle way than 'the ship of kings and presidents':
Legend of Apollo They wished for the moon, They learnt to walk again They returned home as gods an eternity,
The Legend of Apollo
They wished for the moon,
They learnt to walk again
They returned home as gods
I hope this is the final version, although I sometimes think poems are finished only because we decide they are. Since writing this poem, I've returned to the idea of the 'ship of fools' and have come up with two different drafts. I'm still trying to decide between the two, or if the final new poem will require a combination of them both. It's an involved process!