In the summer of 1947, life in the quiet, little town of Roswell, New Mexico, changed forever with the arrival of visitors from another world. Or at least, that is one theory offered to explain the mysterious happenings that started when Mac Brazel found strange debris in the desert outside Roswell; others include a downed weather balloon, a military experiment gone horribly wrong, and a Russian aircraft.
But whatever the truth of the incident itself, since it happened, these aliens have invaded comic books, novels, television shows and yes, even the movies (including the recent Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). So, it should come to no surprise that a contemporary poet has joined the club. Rane Arroyo, in his first book of speculative poetry, asks, "Something happened in that obscure town, something happened that is still with us in the 21st century—but what?" (p. 17) As a reader skimming the introduction, I expected Arroyo to answer his own question in the pages to follow. But he doesn't. Instead, his exploration of Roswell takes readers through eyewitness accounts, speculation in newspapers and tabloids, and in general, a history of America.
Arroyo opens his book with a poem titled "Before the Hoopla: 1946" with a look at what will become ground zero: "Roswell doesn't suspect that it's / to be the New World Bethlehem" (p. 19). His second poem, "UFOs Over America" suggests that Roswell was not the only extraterrestrial incident in America: "UFOs complicate our alphabets / as newspapers brag of raw crashes" (p. 20). Both poems provide an interesting introduction to the book. A simple depiction of a small normal town coupled with a comment that UFO sightings were not abnormal in America at first suggests that Roswell shouldn't be considered anything really unusual. However, the rest of Arroyo's book quickly dispels this theory.
As with any strong collection of poetry that revolves around a single theme, the order of the poems is of great importance. We see Roswell before the crash and then find out that UFO stories were prominent in America in the late 1940's. Then, Arroyo dives into the actual story by chronicling many of the eyewitnesses' accounts in lyric form. But his poems are more than mere objective reports. Instead, we hear bewilderment, fear, and amazement. In a poem simply titled "Eyewitnesses," we hear awe in Mother Superior Mary Bernadette's testimony when she explains, "a fire grabbed / the horizon and nearly broke / its neck" (p. 23) and confusion when Mr. And Mrs. Dan Wilmont say, "There was an oval shape in the night / a lump of coal on fire but not burning" (p. 23). This same poem chronicles an anonymous source living in a Nursing Home in 1995 who, in looking back states,
It was a time when secrets thrived:
like us, the U.S., and the universe.
We leaned against each other and
glorified being human, Invasions,
evasions, visions. We made Heaven
crash! Yes, we were that beautiful. (p. 24)
But it's the burden of Mac Brazel that is the heaviest. Brazel and his son are considered the first eyewitness of the incident, and Arroyo gives Brazel star status in many of his poems including "Enter the Cowboy" where we find a comment that "This crash has done the impossible / it has sent ripples through the desert" (p. 26). In "House Arrest or Government Guest" we learn that Brazel refuses to give in to interrogation where he is asked to "prove / that he's patriotic and say that he saw / no bodies, no wreckage, no sky shards" (p. 39). And in "The Accidental Messiah" we learn of Brazel's nightmares where "He's in a field and runs / to a silver ship turning into slivers" (p. 42). But it's in the heartfelt "Mac Brazel Talks to the Poet, Man to Man" where we feel the full weight of Brazel's role in this collection: "Poet, don't turn me into Sisyphus and / make me saddle the sun again and again" (p. 25).
Arroyo's work, of course, does not just rely on the first eyewitness accounts. In "Major Jesse Marcel Races to the Debris Site to Take Notes" we see an official pondering the event he is about to encounter. Poems such as "Rubbernecking at the Crash Site" and "The Recanting" move the story of Roswell forward, encompassing the confusion of the little town as both the residents and the rest of the world sort through the rumors. And in "Roswell Returns to Sleep" we see a town seemingly resting before it enters the world of pop culture—an entrance that is also chronicled in this collection. For example, do you remember the teen soap opera/alien show Roswell? Arroyo does. In "Roswell: The Television Series" where the teenage stars are left behind by the alien visitors, "they lose virginity after virginity / while learning to speak and pout" (p. 63). And of course, no discussion about Roswell and pop culture would be complete without at least one mention of The X-Files. In "The Poet is Also Ensnared by the Myth" we hear the persona explain in a dream that he and Fox Mulder "find a tunnel into Mexico / where a tall cathedral full of small coffins / glows, calls us, but not by our names" (p. 59).
And then there is Roswell today. There is, of course, the tourism. For example, in "Visible Souvenirs," we hear the voice of someone in "the business of selling/the rewritten past" which in the case of Roswell seems to be in the form of "alien-with-lit eyes pens" and t-shirts with the logo, "This cowboy can beat up your astronaut" (p. 56). And in "After Another Alien Festival" we see a lone figure, musing "Are threats / coming tonight from the skies/the desert, or the drunks in/Martian masks?" (p. 60) But there are also the ordinary folks living there, trying to sort out the past of their own world. Many, of course, were not alive back in 1947, but there are others who struggle to remember, especially Jesse Marcel Jr. whose father encountered the initial site:
My father stirred us up and I tried
hearing him and I thought I was awake
when he showed us the alien scraps
including the hieroglyphics, the symbols
representing something, almost half
Aztec and half mathematics and I asked—
am I dreaming or is this happening? (p. 49)
Beyond a certain point, reviewing every poem in Arroyo's book would be doing a great disservice to The Roswell Poems. Arroyo's book should be read as a history of Roswell—what it was and what it has become today. As the poet concludes in "Letting Go," "A crash may happen / quickly but its wreckage is ours forever" (p. 68).
For those of you who are more afraid of poetry than a real-life alien invasion, this collection shows that you shouldn't be. Arroyo's collection gives us a world that is both haunting and strangely beautiful. And just a little weird.
Rane Arroyo's poem "The Wandering" can be found in the Strange Horizons archives. Karen J. Weyant's most recent work has been published and/or is forthcoming in 5 AM, Anti-, Boxcar Poetry Review, Slipstream and The Minnesota Review. She lives in Jamestown, New York, where she teaches at Jamestown Community College.