Journey of a
Poem


Esther
Morgan






Beyond Calling Distance
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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
A world in negative - the land silver and white, the sky black - un-earthly. The contrasts of our world reversed.

The 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.
The picture of the astronaut 'tumbling' over Mexico - space-walking, linked to the module by an umbilical cord - a foetal image. A newness and clarity in all these images -no pollution to blur the crystalline light.

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.

The craters are empty eye sockets or black mouths - singing or screaming?
Astronaut with his space suit water vapour halo.

Contrast and tension between the desolation of the moon and its beauty.


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Version 1
This is my fist attempt at sketching out a poem, linking some of the ideas and images from my notes. My first artistic decision was to make the poem narrated by the moon to give a more intimate atmosphere. From the beginning I was interested in how the relationship between the moon and the men/earth was affected by the Apollo programme:
 


Waning

You appeared
like clumsy angels
dressed in white
haloed in breath.
You learnt to walk again
through my dream dust.
You gazed like children
at your blue glass world
tissued in mist.

Then you left me
with footprints that will last
a million years,
a flag of stars
and loneliness
like the drag of night tides.


 
I felt straight away that this was only a first attempt and that it was too short to be a proper exploration of how the images had affected me. Often when I'm working on a poem, I write my own commentary on it as I try to tease out why it isn't working and what directions I might explore next. These are the initial notes to myself on this version:

'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. 


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Version 2


Waning

I'd lifted your faces
from nightmares and fevers
with my pale hands.
Lovers and prisoners
mothers and soldiers
centuries of madmen -
I'd felt the pull of your prayers,
their gravity.

You answered them yourselves
appearing in my silence
like clumsy angels
dressed in white
haloed in breath.
You learnt to walk again
through the dream dust
of my dead seas,
to gaze like children
at your blue glass world
tissued in mist.

Then you left me
with footprints that will last
a million years,
a flag of stars
and loneliness
like the drag of night tides.


 
This now tries to set the moon's relationship to the men in context by looking at the 'before' as well as the 'after'. I felt it was important to flesh out this central relationship. These are the notes I wrote about this version:

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.

So the movement of the poem is:
· The moon as object of veneration and prayer - 'wishing for the moon'
· Humans answer their own prayers by landing on the moon. They are like angels from another world - balance between the human and divine.
· They are also like children - learning to walk again, seeing the earth for the first time from space, re-born.
· The astronauts become secular gods because of their achievement - which is magnificent but also useless. They return with 'pockets of rocks' but no answers. They can't work miracles on earth.
· Should this return to the beginning - the idea that not much on earth has changed post moon-landings? I also like the idea of them leaving relics behind - the moon as a reliquary. But should the moon have faith in humans?

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): 


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Version 3


Moon to Apollo

You wished for me -
lifting your pale faces
from nightmares and fevers.
Lovers and prisoners,
centuries of madmen -
I've felt the pull of your prayers,

their gravity.
You answered them yourselves
appearing in my silence
like clumsy angels
dressed in white
with haloes of vapour.

You learnt to walk again
through the dream dust
of my dead seas,
to gaze like children
at your blue glass world
tissued in mist.

You returned home as gods
with a cargo of rocks
leaving me with relics
of your miracle -
a flag of stars,
footprints that will last

an eternity -
or at least until
you come again
with a ship of kings and presidents
looking back at the blackness forever
with your hearts of salt.

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:

Pros

  • Everyone liked the third and fourth stanzas in particular: the images of the astronauts and the earth were considered unusual and exact. Interestingly, some of these lines dated right back to the original draft.
  • People were positive about the idea of the poem and thought it worth the effort to explore.

Cons

  • Several people weren't sure about the first stanza, commenting that it felt too introductory and that it would be better to plunge straight into the moon landings without this preliminary.
  • Did speaking in the voice of the moon work? This was felt to be forced and artificial - a distraction from the main ideas in the poem.
  • People weren't sure about the final stanza - it was pointed out that the tone here shifts into something which is much more politically motivated. This sits uncomfortably with the lyricism and wonder of the middle stanzas. People thought it over-determined the meaning of the poem.

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':


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Final Version


The Legend of Apollo

They wished for the moon,
then granted it themselves
appearing in its silence
like clumsy angels
dressed in white
with haloes of vapour.

They learnt to walk again
through the dream dust
of long dead seas.
They gazed like children
at their blue glass sphere
tissued in mist.

They returned home as gods
with a cargo of rocks
leaving only relics
of their miracle -
a flag of stars,
footprints that have lasted

an eternity,
and this photograph,
its bleed of colour
in the night's negative -
a nuclear family
smiling at the dark.


I changed the title to give a sense that all this happened in the distant past, and I ditched the moon persona as I now felt the material demanded a more objective stance. My only difficulty was that I felt it now needed a footnote to tell the reader about Charles Duke's photograph: I tried to think of ways of weaving an explanation into the poem itself, but any solution seemed clunky. I don't like footnotes, and still feel dissatisfied that I had to use one in the end, but I decided the final image was so much more in keeping with the rest of the poem, that this seemed the lesser of two evils.

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!


The Witness

I am the one who looked back:
stars shone in my floating hair
like bartered diamonds,
the moon swam in my iris
like a pox-scarred face.
I opened my mouth
and swallowed the bowl of dust
we'd left behind us.

We are the future!
boomed my father's voice.
This was on the seventh night
and the celebrations of the saved
were still in progress.
To a distant chorus
I watched a space-walker wave
then slice his umbilical of air.

I felt my heart implode,
my blood orbiting a darkness.
I shut my eyes to rest
and saw again that luminous planet
I used to fall asleep on as a girl,
a miraculous world
where Blue Flame raced across the salt flats of the west,
where light could fuse your eyes into blindness.

NB - Blue Flame is the name of the car which once held the land-speed record


The Witness

I am the one who looked back:
stars shone in my floating hair
like bartered diamonds,
the moon swam in my iris
like a pox-scarred face.
I opened my mouth
and swallowed the bowl of dust
we'd left behind us.

We are the future!
boomed my father's voice.
This was on the seventh night
and the celebrations of the saved
were still in progress.
To a distant chorus
I watched a space-walker wave
then slice his umbilical of air.

I felt my heart implode,
my blood orbiting a darkness.
I shut my eyes to rest
and saw again that luminous planet
I used to fall asleep on as a girl,
a miraculous world
where Blue Flame raced across the salt flats of the west,
where light could fuse your eyes into blindness.

NB - Blue Flame is the name of the car which once held the land-speed record


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