Humans like to measure things. We are ruled by weights and measures from birth and are beholden to the idea of measurement as a way of creating value. Our language is filled with metaphors of measurement: the whole nine yards; a penny for your thoughts; I love you a bushel and a peck or to the moon and back. Even thought can be measured/weighed for importance, judged for superfluous content that can be jettisoned to leave leaner thoughts hungry for interpretation. The first poem in Martha Silano’s Gravity Assist, “Song of Weights and Measurements,” is the perfect invocation to whatever ruling muse governs how humans measure time and material goods against ourselves and our souls to the point of eternal judgment. Repetitive lines read like a prayer justifying emotions and searching for a way to name them, and, in naming them, leave them behind, reflecting on them only as things measured, weighed and judged, the speaker admitting, “For once I measured ten out of ten / on the scale of pain,” thus undoing the spell that measurement has on us in a song of welcome, a traditional opening of the curtain.
Silano’s collection (Saturnalia Books, 2019) is presented in three titled sections: “Periapsis,” “Orbit Insertion,” and “Escape Velocity.” The poems within each section share observations both physical and metaphysical in close proximity to one another and operate as important parts of a cohesive whole.
Poems in the first section contemplate personal relationships, as well as the possibility that humans may not be alone in the universe. The poem “My Mother Who Told Me” is an elegy to equivocation, the mixed messages a parent can’t always help but send. There are so many things we are not sure of, and the universe and its creation is one of life’s most niggling problems, demanding thought and time and answers to children’s questions. The mother in this poem is a complex mix of belief and logic, “too busy browsing / The Female Eunuch to read aloud from // the book of Jonah, to reason a man could live / three days in the belly of a whale.” She is held hostage by the chance that she might be wrong about God, and she allows pop culture to intervene and substitute a belief in the importance of longevity with true belief in something much larger than any one of us could measure with our rudimentary tools.
Among the poems in the first section, is “X.” With an epigraph that is a quote from a meeting of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), “X” is a poem that seems current and accessible, in line with what is almost always on TV: UFO documentaries, theories, and reenactments that draw viewers to the unknown, to the variable which we cannot solve for but recognize as having some seeds of truth planted within its baffling existence. Many people report UFO sightings, but few are willing to admit to what they have seen, and so we are left with equivocation, doubting our own eyes: “or was it a dome, / burst of light and whoosh,” or could it have been a “departing spaceship or a Citroen on the M8 Motorway?” In the category of things that are measurable, we cannot always count on the perceptions of experiencers, regardless of how sure they are of what they have seen. The X is unknown and remains unknowable.
In the book’s second section, poems embrace broader themes but still focus on close physical observations and personal experiences. The widened field of ideas is concerned with metaphysics, the expanse of the globe, and as a consequence, our thoughts and philosophies. Poems in this section reference art and literature, as well as apprehension about the state of the earth in the face of the climate crisis and plastic pollution. They are a portent of a future already on its way. In “The World,” the speaker thinks through the bigness of thoughts about the world and its purpose, of meaning which is too large for definition but not giving away any secrets. It is a “world so big and silent,” that “cannot speak but hails / from a bigger that blew apart, knocks upon our rutabaga dumbness.” At the mercy of our limited knowledge and understanding, we cannot always see the forest.
In a testament to human nature, the poem “Jealous” has everything (I think) a poem should have: close physical observation alongside a wider perceptive stance regarding what all of the images mean. And forget measuring now, but remember gravity, that holds us here, earth-bound with geckos, crickets, Natalie Merchant, and “a desire to watch / Orion rise in the eastern dark,” where “a whole bunch of the future is being born.” This poem tears apart scientific laws that govern our existence to say that we are more than individual parts of a whole. More than our jealousies.
As portents go, one cannot be clearer than “The New Nature Poem,” which is a description of our planet’s sad and inevitable peril in couplets that predict what future poems will necessarily become. They “will reside in the lattice of latrines, / will sway with horizontal parataxis, / will writhe in plastic, cavort with PCB’s…” The language in the poem is cautionary and frightening:
If you touch this poem, wear gloves for the Roundup
it romps in, a mask for endocrine-disrupting pesticides
drifting from its Central Valley in a climate-altering,
drought-induced cloud that spans stanzas, bridges, highways,
penetrates windows and screens, toward your very own
exit ramp, toward what-you-thought-was-pristine.
The imagery is ominous in its ability to dismantle the human knack for ignoring our mortality and the consequences of our actions.
As if fulfilling her own prophecy, Silano gives us the third section of the collection, “Escape Velocity,” and now we are ready for it. The poems here are measured, some in traditional poetic forms and others crafted carefully so that the language will work to its utmost potential. There is a strange comfort in the alarming outcomes predicted for humanity. Perhaps we will move to Mars or, more likely, relocate out of necessity after the bees have turned to ash. The final poems of this collection soar in language that contains a promise to change reality, remake it into art, dare to show us what might happen to our earth and all of its offerings that “are not ours, not ours to keep,” and if we could “remount // the mechanical hope contraption,” we might be able to untether ourselves, break away, and look back on the destruction, the “seven driveways leading to nowhere,” knowing that they could possibly lead somewhere where there is “fair weather, summer dew, peace.”