I wonder, sometimes, if poetry, more than any other literary form, is concerned primarily with perspective. Part of that, I’m sure, is a function of length. Many poems are short enough that, if you fill your lungs first, you can get through them in a single breath. There might be some gabbling before the end, but still—they’re lengths that can be encompassed, and with that limited word count the only chance of standing out is an originality of thought: an awareness, perhaps, of mutability and multiplicity both. The sensible thing is to play on readers’ expectations, then, to try and catch attention by surprising it.
This is something that T.D. Walker does exceptionally well. Small Waiting Objects is a collection of poetry heavily informed by science fiction, and by what science fiction is expected to be. The poems here play with that expectation right from the very first, “Artist/Model” (pp. 13-16), which shifts person and setting in clear and clever juxtaposition. Who gets to be captain, who gets to be alien, and how are the stories presented? “How strange to be / an explorer with nowhere / to go except down / the hall, into the archive,” the poem muses of a boy born on a generational ship; there is a note of tension there, of ambiguity. How can one explore from the base of a holding pattern, when one’s assigned role is to be the son and the father of explorers, respectively? And, inevitably, I’m left asking myself what my own opinion of exploration would be, born into a similar time and place. What expectations would I have, and how quickly would my opinion of exploration fade into resentment, or even indifference?
One particularly good example of the intersection between expectation and indifference can be seen in the poem “New Moon” (pp. 17-18). Here, the appearance of a second moon in the sky over Earth causes cultural rather than physical consequences. We would normally expect both, but, in this case, “The earth was not / pulled by new tides. The night / birds, used to sodium-vapor’s / glow, did not watch it rising.” All the response is internal. And this is, in its way, a fascinating thought experiment. As readers—as science fiction readers—we have an expectation of verisimilitude in our reading. The appearance of a new heavenly body should cause tidal effects, should impact gravitation, and yet it doesn’t. Admittedly, Small Waiting Objects is not hard science fiction, and Walker is not concerned with teasing out the physics of such an appearance. Instead the concern is entirely cultural, and entirely personal.
Imagine it: walking outside of a night, and there it is … the undermining not only of science, but a lifetime’s worth of experience. Another moon, a new moon, and how destabilising would that be? Think of the conflicts that would start, the cults, the sheer possibility of interaction, and all those possibilities would spring, necessarily, from the relationship we have with the single moon of that previous experience. “We’ll fill this one too, the tourists / say”—but these are lines loaded with ambiguity, too, because it’s never quite clear what is being filled. Is it the tourist buses, gone out to look at the new night sky, or is it the moon itself? The preexisting moon, our moon, is already a site of visitation, of colonisation, even if that is not immediately evident: “The first / does not show from this distance / where we’ve landed, again and again.” It can’t be; the scale of distance is simply too massive. So the second moon carries on, indifferent in its sheer physicality to the looming presence of Earth, and eventually the observers of Earth go on as well. Nothing changes. The cat put out at night comes back in the morning. An aircraft crashes, but another lands as normal—and aircraft crash all the time, even without the unconfirmed influence of strange heavenly bodies.
We are used to the idea that observation affects outcome. But every observation can also be suffused with indifference, too. It’s all too easy to ignore the things we see, and foolish to expect that those who see themselves ignored aren’t affected by the experience. A moon is not a person, but does that experience of indifference remain? What happens to a society when, expectations unmet, it takes to ignoring what it cannot explain? When does indifference turn into sheer, bloody-minded refusal? “Someone will say the new / moon does not exist, we cannot / see it with our instruments.” And it’s interesting, because this is a particularly understandable reaction. My own worldview is deeply rooted in science, in scepticism and empiricism. If a moon turned up, not acting like a moon, how easy would it be to refuse its existence, to start to wonder about mass hallucination as explanation? It would be quite easy, I think, and Walker’s poem comments implicitly on this. It’s almost saddening, in its way—expectation has such a hold, such a strong hold, on behaviour and response that the introduction of marvels becomes a matter of indifference, of blind apathy and going-on. The cat’s still to be let out of its bag or its box, and there’s something very dispiriting about that.
That sinking—from expectation to indifference and then to apathy—is very well-illustrated by the poem “When the First Ship Left” (p. 47). How one relatively short poem (it’s all of fourteen lines) manages to pack so much emotional punch into such a short space is frankly incredible. The premise is still science fictional, but here, instead of the appearance of astronomical bodies, the text is firmly centred around absence—especially as it comes from desertion, or abandonment.
The poem comes right out and says it: “Mars / is another word for absence.” Space travel is of course one of the shining themes of science fiction, but the stories about it that we expect to see are frequently, firmly that of the active protagonist: the person who journeys out into space, the person who steps onto a new world, the person who goes out into darkness and danger and discovers their own humanity there. Rarely do we see space travel from the perspective of those left behind. We can dress up scientific exploration as much as we like, but when it involves travel—particularly extended travel—it also involves desertion. When what’s left behind is family—a spouse, a child—well. That heroic exploratory figure, seen through a lens of bravery and wonder, becomes a little more tarnished.
There are many ways to be a deadbeat parent, and the expectation has always been that the cause of the absence is worth it. There are also sops given to a different type of bravery, a different type of self-sacrifice, whereby those left behind are often spoken of with respectful indifference; but no one really stops to think that their abandonment is precisely that. “Twenty years on, when you’ve returned / our son will speak another language,” comments the nameless narrator. Indifference, here, is to be met with indifference. It’s like for like, and the same equation holds for abandonment. There is acknowledgement that this breaks with expected behaviour – “others took their places on widow’s watches”—but the narrator carries on, unaffected, and ensuring that their son will be equally so: “I won’t teach him that patience is any virtue”—and really, why should they?
I’m not immune to the appeal of the science fiction exploration. The desire to go out into space, to colonise other planets, is certainly an attractive one. It might be less so, fair to say, for the people who have made an emotional investment in the explorer. There doesn’t seem a lot heroic about living your dream when the cost for that dream falls on a kid who’ll never know you, or on a spouse left to do your parenting work as well as their own. Exploration, here, upends expectation to become an astoundingly self-centred endeavour, one that is not rewarded by the widow’s watch. There’s a particularly cutting image that illustrates, rather graphically, the cost of such expectation: “The dog, always yours more than mine / waits at the door.” In how many stories, in how many narratives, have the families left behind been presented like this dog—as something inherently loyal, as something a little subhuman, even, in their inability to participate in that great and conquering adventure.
Who gives a damn, really? They’ll be there when you get back. They may even speak the same language, still. But not in this book, where severance and abandonment is frequently total. And that shift even in the basics of communication offers its own commentary, for how can language flourish in the absence of speech? Mars may have something to say; but its voice, too, is indifferent.
For all the focus that Walker puts on expectation and abandonment, it’s notable that it is presented in a number of different contexts. There’s the many science fiction poems, of course, the ones concerned with Mars and moons and alien life; but that alien life—or, more accurately, alienated life—turns up again in a series of speculative poems concerned less with those staples of science fiction and more with the navigation of utopias. One utopia in particular, anyway: the world of Herland. For those of you who aren’t already familiar with it, Herland is a feminist utopian novel written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, published in 1915. In this book, three male explorers discover a society which consists entirely of women. That society is somewhat idealised, and the men react to it in different ways, not all of which are positive. At the end of the novel, one of the women leaves with two of the men, as they return to what is essentially the modern world.
Small Waiting Objects has, in its final section, four lengthy poems focusing on the reactions of the women of Herland to the events surrounding them. These reactions, unsurprisingly, are entirely coloured by expectation, and when those expectations are not met the result is less indifference than revulsion. “Look at These Girls” (pp. 88-89), primarily concerned with reproduction, is horrified at the constraints that a prejudiced world has placed upon women in that sphere. “Look at these girls who do not know enough / about motherhood to demand a healthy father,” Ellador laments, stuck in a world where utopia for women does not exist. It’s a line taken straight out of Gilman, but the variations Walker plays with illustrate the fact that healthy fathers are only one element that is lacking in a desired family makeup. “Look at these girls who do not know / enough about parental company to demand / a healthy parent. Check out these girls who do / not know how to ask parents for healthy parenting.” When one aspect of the whole is lacking, everything else is dragged down with it. Is it healthy fatherhood to leave your young child to run off to Mars for a generation? Look at the girl who would pick a father like that for her child … Look at the society that would encourage either.
There is, today, an increasing and welcome diversity in science fiction, one that is steadily presenting more stories than that of the individual hero. That is, I think, an encouraging thing. More, it is a thoughtful one. If we only value a limited type of story, our expectations become limited in turn—we don’t stop to think of the dog-child waiting by the window for that distant parent to return. We don’t stop to think of the limitations we place on ourselves when we see something that can’t be real and so immediately dismiss it. Science is a valuable way of understanding the world, of course, but it is not the only way, and if we use it to abandon our ability to see through other lenses then of course the world we see will be an ephemeral, an unstable, thing. That is what Walker argues, anyway, in poems that are both tight little bursts of unexpectedness, and sad, lovely explorations of the possible.