“How / & how far / must you back away / from yourself / to see / yourself / as the Astronaut / sees / Earth” asks Lisa Fay Coutley in “How,” the opening poem of her 2020 collection tether from Black Lawrence Press. The poems that follow wrestle with that question and examine the ways in which the astronaut—and all of us stuck earthbound—are tethered to the various forces in our lives: to our children and to our parents, to our partners and to ourselves Sometimes those tethers are the things that keep us alive (“Please look away from Mars / dangling so angry in so much darkness. / Look at my hand. Take the rope” Coutley concludes in the powerful “The Letter I Never Send”) and in other moments those tethers are the very things that hold us back (“In love, we burn the color / of a small sun & people orbit us even / when we need to be alone” Coutley gripes in “Portrait as Facts of Energy Between Us”). The tension created through these explorations illuminates the essential realities of the human condition, the ways in which we are bound to one another, to our limited perspective from the grounds of earth, and from our particular grounds at that.
Coutley’s explorations of this tethered reality are anchored both thematically and rhetorically by a series of poems invoking the astronaut from “How.” These astronaut poems are woven throughout the four sections of Coutley’s collection, offering a zoomed out lens through which to view the relationships and emotions invoked in the collection’s other poems. They act for the reader as a landscape shot paired with soft background music might after a tense scene in a movie—as a quiet moment for processing. And because we are offered these moments to pause, to process Coutley’s cutting emotional honesty and fragmentation, the moments of clarity within the astronaut poems become even more poignant. “I’ll remember home / also means to be ushered back,” writes Coutley in the final lines of the last named astronaut poem in the book, “Astronaut: On Forget,” not just offering the image of the astronaut finally returning to the earth they’ve been tethered to, but also invoking the ways in which her other speakers are ushered back to their homes, to the people and places they were tethered to from the beginning.
Much of tether maintains this deeply emotional and almost existential tenor, but Coutley also undercuts some of those heavy philosophical and personal explorations with a wry humor. Consider “To Be Honest” where Coutley writes:
Honesta, in Latin, is a feminine noun
used rarely for Lady. When I drink
my iced mocha & type on my Mac
Book, I don’t contemplate godliness
or the twelve-year old girl whose gods
cannot stop the bleeding […]
While the poem is serious as a whole, I couldn’t help but laugh at the sudden presence of an “iced mocha” and “Mac Book.” These mundane and very modern objects contradict, in a surprising and humorous way, the rest of the language and tone of the poem just as the sudden declaration that “Mystery is her / bitch” does in the later poem “Total Solar Eclipse.”
Like the jarring use of humor, Coutley’s use of language more generally serves as another point of unmooring for her readers. Many of tether’s poems are written in falling tercets, each line in the tercet indented further and further across the page, the reader’s understanding of grammar interrupted by the very landscape of the poem which relies on the use of white space and on Coutley’s sparse punctuation. Just as the “iced mocha” does in “To Be Honest,” Coutley’s form and grammar surprise the reader by creating another thread of fragmentation across her four connected but distinct sections in the book. With the exception of the first section which opens with a quote from Neil Armstrong, Coutley has written each section’s epigraph herself — another unorthodox tactic.
In many ways, tether’s four sections operate as a direct spiral, as a descent further and further into the core of human concerns and emotions, from the most outward (from space) to the most inward (the earth’s very failings, our initial wounds from birth). In the last section of tether then, Coutley’s speaker is at her most vulnerable: the earth is crumbling around her, she writes a heartbreaking letter to her mother, and she grapples with the very idea of being home (on earth and in a body). In many ways, this final section is the kind of ushering back she writes of in “Astronaut: On Forget” — the reoccurring astronaut considers their relationship to earth, Coutley’s speaker considers her original home, her mother’s body, and the tether, the book’s central concern, winds back from the way we tether ourselves to our daily lives, to love, and to relationships to the core two tethers we have as human beings: to the people who created us and to the earth that sustains us, the two tethers essential for our literal creation and survival as beings.
My favorite poem in the collection, “Dear Mom,” is in this final section. In it, Coutley returns to the literal tether that connected her to her mother. “My life began inside you. What / else is there to say?” she writes, illuminating the ways in which despite distance or death or intention, we remain tethered to our mothers as our creators. She continues, “I close my eyes & try / to summon your face — a hole blown through / the center of every floor in this endless sky- / scraper inside me,” the mother presented as a figure so essential to the speaker’s being that she inhabits the very insides of her body.
This winding inward—from space all the way down to a psychological core—is how Coutley ultimately answers her opening question. To see herself as an astronaut from space might view her, she echoes through the entirety of tether, you must not step back, but further and further in.