recently read a news story online about a billionaire CEO of a private space flight
company who is developing plans to colonize Mars with 80,000 people.1
Once there they’ll build a transparent dome and make its insides like home, perhaps
with trees, insects, birds, animals and whatnot. When I was a kid I was enthralled
with this stuff. I consumed all manner of science fiction style entertainment.
I watched educational programs where men like Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan opened
my mind to our realistically possible future as space colonists. I went to bed
thinking about these things, dreaming about these things. I still think about
these things today, only not so much so as I did when I was a kid. I’ve had more
present things to deal with as I’ve grown in to life, jobs, kids, marriage, divorce,
deaths etc. What’s more is that somewhere back in my past I stopped reading science
fiction. It’s probably L Ron Hubbard’s fault but that’s beside the point. Once
I turned from science fiction I started reading classic literature, philosophy,
and poetry. In one capacity or another I’ve remained a poetry editor for the past
six years, so it is poetry which I read the most these days. A few weeks back
I heard about Mary McCray’s latest book of poetry “Why Photographers Commit Suicide”.
In the Big Bang Poetry Blog
it was described as a book that “explores, in small narratives and lyrical poems,
the American idea of Manifest Destiny, particularly as it relates to the next
frontier—space exploration. We examine the scientific, psychological and spiritual
frontiers enmeshed in our very human longing for space, including our dream of
a space station on Mars.”2 Such a
description certainly lit up my antennae. I’d never heard of poetry like this!
This would be a melding a past love of mine with a present love. I knew I had
to have this book.
Truth be told I kept my expectations low. I’d never read any poetry by McCray, but that aside I sincerely doubted that any poet could rise to the occasion and produce something of compelling artistic quality via poetry with this subject matter. I am happy to admit it and am so glad that I was wrong. “Why Photographers Commit Suicide” is a book of poetry for our times. We live in an era where a large segment of society has embraced the Malthusian mindset. As we grow increasingly aware of the finite realities of our planet it is only natural that we should now be pondering our exit strategy, imagining and dreaming upon our celestial futures. For me personally this book has rekindled some old thoughts, fantasies, and questions. It’s also given me a new method for viewing them and new ideas on expressing them.
In “Why Photographers Commit Suicide” McCray dives as deep into the human psyche as she does into outer space. We’re invited to imagine a future of space exploration more advanced than today yet still in infancy, a colonial stage of space pioneers. With this McCray takes a humanistic approach and deftly plays upon themes of fear, loneliness, and loss, things the early American settlers faced in large proportion as well.
Right from the opening poem, “Imagine Mars” we know McCray isn’t going to sugar coat this imagined future. With her words she grabs a hold of the readers’ arm and sits them down like a storyteller would asking them to imagine our “life in a glass box,/cold, clean streets and the porcupine feeling/of antiseptic air.” McCray goes on to paint a rather stark picture of Mars in imagination:
Imagine the smell of autumn in a test tube,
cloning sickly trees,
sheet-snapped flurries with nowhere to go,
Readers learn early that this isn’t going to be the utopia you may have been hoping for. This is frontier life. Of course it is going to be hard and harsh. We are pulled in nonetheless, either by an inevitable collective thrust or a chanced upon gravitational pull. In the poem “The Torus City of Visceratonia” McCray taps the psychological as she imagines a lonely colonist couple on a phone call back home to a friend on earth. They paint a very different picture of Mars as they try to entice the friend to come visit:
"At first you’ll miss the toilets
in the artificial gravity spin.
But you’ll be mesmerized
by the steamy gyrations
of the synchronized sprinklers.
Soon you’ll be clocking rainbows
and watching terraforming over tea.
You’ll be bargaining for artifacts,
drinking Martian Margaritas
and writing free verse.”
“You’ll be a traveler in the Martian century,”
Charlie says, “surfing the solar wind.”
“They live frontier lives out here,” Elizabeth said,
“wild expatriate lives.”
Just like America’s early days and its manifest destiny rush to the pacific, McCray understands that tug of romanticism that drove those early settlers, and a few of the poems give that feel. McCray however keeps us sober to not just hard pioneer realities but our own basic human realities as well. Some of my favorites in this book are a series of poems about a dog named Helga who travels to Mars with a colonist. In the poem “Helga Traveling” Helga is snuck into space by her owner Marge only after Marge has tried every imaginable way to do it legitimately: “But in the end, she was stashing mainstay chewies/in her pant pockets and poking holes in a box.” Later we catch up with Helga and Marge safely on Mars with the poem “Helga in the Park” and find neither one adjusting too well to their new environment:
Mean as bad traveling and her ears are bitten off,
my dog’s been biting at space dust like weed-grass
because the distribution of her fluids is out of whack
…we’re both in low-gravity water therapy now,
the dog and me. Every Sunday
she swims to me through the water balls,
her leash floating from her mouth.
She’s an earthly creature
and she wants to go home.
And finally with the poem “Helga Post-Orbit” we learn of Helga’s death and find Marge struggling to deal with it. As she ponders Helga’s final destination, Marge laments the irony that she’ll uncover “the impossible mysteries of Mars” before she ever knows “where Helga has gone”.
McCray further plays off the frontier theme in the narrative “Phineas Revisited” a retelling of the true story of Phineas Gage who in 1848 had a railroad spike driven through his brain and lived to tell about it. In McCray’s fitting version it’s a plastic rod that is driven into the protagonist’s skull. While still alive he becomes a haywire cognitive mess, which results in doctors performing a lobotomy that strips the protagonist of any last sense of self.
McCray skillfully pushes the idea that regardless of this romaniticized futuristic frontier, humanity will still be unable to escape its natural inclinations and ignorance, and ultimately seems doomed to repeat its historical failures. The middle stanza of the poem “Failure to Launch” illustrates this best:
So Mars rises, salt and pressure
under our fingernails,
all the mountains of gold
locked in Black Hole vaults.
Mo Mars, mo problems: the crook
who misunderstands “he built this planet”
with all its universal traffic, taxes and thugs.
On every surface, the strong push off the weak.
“Why Photographers Commit Suicide” is a compelling journey in the universal imagination of the next human frontier. It also plays on themes of the end of times. There are poems of apocalyptic nature. As part of “The End” series of poems, we are confronted with our sun collapsing in on itself and everything including us being sucked into a black hole. Here McCray delivers the astute laser of a line, “What a blow to regret and revision.” In the concluding poem, which bears the title of the book, a photographer on Mars sums up his view on existence by explaining “There is no absolute point of rest in the universe” and in apparent apathy leaves the bio-dome without his space suit. Graphic designer Emi Villavicencio whom also has several sharp line art illustrations accompanying various poems throughout the book illustrates this scene on the cover of the book.
I think what is so special about this book is that not only does it entertain the imagination with futuristic vision but also for every time it takes us and leads us to the existential abyss, prickling our fears and anxieties, it also takes that idea, mirrors, and thrusts it against all the celestial objects of the universe. Here we have stars and planets personified, acting out the baser human emotions and acts of sex-lust, lost loves, and betrayals, dealing with their own fears and anxieties about loss and the ultimate end, a sort of cosmic soap opera that mimics the natural flux and flow of the universe. The effect is strange and familiar at the same time. We relate to all of this cosmic collision. McCray just offers us a different kind of telescope to view these things. Her language is rich and daringly playful, and her sense of poetic rhythm is excellent. A good poem shows its weight in worth when read aloud. These poems sound great aloud. If a poet can strike upon the heart, the mind, and the ear all at the same time, something which Mary McCray has done here, then the poet is getting the job done.
I highly recommend “Why Photographers Commit Suicide”. It is a thought provoking work that seems to be right on in its timing. You don’t have to be a real-life explorer or traveler to embrace this book adoringly. All of us are already explorers of the universal imagination. By virtue of the planet spaceship we all ride on, we have always been travelers of the stars and because of where we can imagine this space ship going, Mary McCray has written this book for all of us.
Devin McGuire is the Assistant Editor, the Aurorean
1 “Pack Your Bags: Pioneer Wants 80,000 of us to Colonize Mars”, NBC News. 26 November 2012
2 Mary McCray. “A Book About Explorers and Frontiers” Big Bang Poetry: Reinventing the Life of a Poet in the Modern World. 27 November 2012