It is impossible to read Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers’ The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons at this time without thinking directly of the multiple national and global predicaments we find ourselves in, even if it feels tiresome to rehearse the list here again: pandemic, economic hardship, environmental catastrophe, racial injustice and their roots in extractive capitalism founded on centuries of genocide and greed. And yet this book, while written to those themes well before they were brought into particularly stark relief by the events of the past year, touches upon each of those points and exposes the origins of the multiple catastrophes the earth and humanity are doing their best to weather today.
Sometimes books write to a particular moment, and then sometimes the moment finds them. Perhaps both are the case with Rogers’ poems. It was beyond unsettling to read the following lines during a pandemic that affects the respiratory system, and in particular, during the ten days this September when it was hard to think about anything but how to make the air inside my home safe for breathing, or how to manage the few absolutely necessary trips outside:
Breathing requires violence:
the red planet’s hyle
split back to the atom. They call oxygen
invisible. But dust-free is
so rare in this world
that clarity is a lavish color.
These lines bring to mind the day where I first heard Dana Levin read “Banana Palace” to my high school poetry students in 2014. The poem was stunning, of course, but in 2014 I still held out a hope that its conceit was an exaggeration, a thought experiment that had some of the allure of the dystopian novels some of my students read but, like them, went a little overboard. Now I am not so sure. And, on a day where my state’s coronavirus death toll reaches another all-time high and the ages of the dead make me think that an entire generation is being culled, to reread the final beautiful and wrenching image of Rogers’ book, in which an older woman, expendable in the name of an experiment, dies, is to see another example of uncomfortable prophecy. And yet Rogers, like Levin, creates great beauty and tenderness in the worlds she builds. Her speakers mourn a lost past that, while rooted in destructive mythologies, was still the only, flawed world they knew, filled with beloved and beautiful things and that they hoped could survive or be improved. And the woman in Rogers’ final image sings as she dies.
The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons is set in large part in an imagined future on a colony on Mars after environmental collapse on Earth has made life there untenable. The poems are driven by sound, music, image and metaphor, and particularly their arrangement on the page. One hallmark of the collection, besides the variety of forms, is the number of long or interconnected poems. In the sonnet crowns, in particular, Rogers builds a world, layered like the geologic strata that inspire the connection between Mars and the American West. She fashions this world not only through narration but also through motifs woven through the poems (water, air, colors, music, and repetition of sounds, to name a few). Part I, “The Frontier,” opens with a poem of the same title, inspired by the first panoramic images of Mars. Lines cascade down the page, descending leftwards, a formatting choice that creates a sensation of hurtling downwards, perhaps into Mars’ gravitational pull. The poem’s first image describes the speakers’ collective imagination of Mars prior to their arrival there and invokes emptiness (both the emptiness and isolation the speakers experience and also the myth of “empty spaces” that fueled expansion in the American West): “we’d pictured fire— / a neon sign blinking / VACANCY—a world as red as that // inside our bodies, but without / the claustrophobia, / the low ceilings of our skin.” These lines also introduce the connection Rogers builds between the body, outer space, and stars, the body’s experience of loss and estrangement from home or the self in the imagined journey from the home world, and also the violence that histories of global expansion have written on bodies. Other details in the first poem hint at the reason for abandoning earth: of the moon Phobos, the speaker notes, “Misshapen, mold gray. / Every four hours, it rises / like the last potato of the famine.”
In a direct address, we, the readers located in the present, are asked to confront our knowledge of the ecological disaster we are inflicting upon the earth: “And know I know, as you must, / what it means to lose / your lakes and oceans […] To think of rain as a form, a tome // of bygone remedies.” Here, too, the imagined future world merges with the trope of Westward expansion and of the frontier: “We come in peace / Curiosity says. But that’s how / all our ships began.” Toward the end of the poem, leaning on the mythologies of the frontier, the Martian landscape elides into a scene from a Western film:
Imagine a Western
set a terrain of glare and scour.
The unspoken agoraphobia
drives us all
into the saloon:
the sheriff, the unshaven rogue, the virgin
in blue gingham, the Indian,
and the hourglass whore.
Horses are dead. Whiskey’s still
brown, but a grit in our throats.
The first shot sounds—
into air this thin, muted
as a powder puff.
Sound, as we will see over and over again in this collection, functions differently on Mars than on Earth, a particularly cutting scientific fact for Rogers to point out to us in poems that are so engaging to the ear. The muted shot reminds us that some media may make the violence of an action less easily apparent.
The book shifts tone and register suddenly with “Red Planet Application,” a series of enigmatic but evocative answers to at first rather straightforward questions in which we meet a chorus of characters who chose to leave their home. Some are associative and playfully metaphorical, such as the answer to a question about allergies: “In the desert, we call the sky / a star rash,” some again, brutally invoking the loss and isolation of the radical departure, hit the 2020 chord:
You will never see your family or friends again. Discuss.
The brush of another person
is more gravity than I can stand.
Like a lantern’s metal and paper
if you touch me, I may collapse. I have
sworn off skin to skin,
and not just during Lent.
Inside a bubble, I prefer to drift
at an arm’s length.
A poem in the second section, “Lost Exit Interview,” feels like a coda to the questionnaire and communicates a sense of loss, not only of the world and of human connection but also of the self.
Some of the most striking poems in the collection are its three sonnet crowns. The first, “Deep Space Crown” is a six-sonnet sequence with sounds and images that evoke the isolation of space and the bereavement that comes looking back to what was left behind. Rogers uses sound and repetition to imagine moving through a soundless world; the cycle creates inner monologues of travelers cocooned off from everything, questioning what it means to speak or make music with only the void of space outside. The sequence is marked by stunning sounds and images, often with a chiasmus in the repeated images at the ending and beginning of each sonnet. The poem opens, “Out of the oval, we read darkness. Stars / glint like lost sequins or scales / numbering a knife’s black edge,” a riff on “At the Fishhouses” that recalls Bishop’s use of the world beneath the surface of the sea to consider ontological questions. In Bishop, the seal, “interested in music,” as it happens, emerges from the cold dark world “bearable to no mortal”; here the bodies both of passenger and ship contain each other, shielded or shielding from and yet also immersed in the emptiness outside, as in the border between the second and third sonnets: “Mostly air and dust, / we wheel within a wheel. A body sure gets around. // Within the ship’s sure body, a star wheel / replaces the wall calendar.” Later, in the third sonnet, “every human body / is a disaster, the fallout from old stars.” “To think I once imagined space / as the smooth texture of coins / or zeros, and never as that deep sap / that traps and always keeps.” Deep space is the primordial stardust from which we come, but, returned to it, we are unmoored, anchorless and lost, but also trapped and grieving a connectedness we never fully understood.
A loss of agency in the body and the attempt to reclaim it also becomes a prominent theme in the series of “Backflash” poems in the collection and “Lolita’s Rover Ballad.” Here, the body, and in particular the body gendered female, becomes a site that struggles against forces that threaten its agency and self-determination. In “Backflash: Hinge,” the speaker imagines an existence outside of gender and free of its constructs by contemplating life as an oyster that can change its sex, and by repudiating euphemisms for female genitalia. In essence, the poem imagines the body before the language of gender marks it. “Backflash: Girl Myth” imagines an intimate (and perhaps imbalanced/exploitative) relationship between the speaker and an older woman; that relationship is the “troubled cord” that leads and then tethers the speaker to the birth of the self:
[…] See it clearly
now: a girl walks, bold,
but this woman
until the girl’s corralled
by trees, swallowed inside
their silent ring.
As it was for Daphne, new leaves
unfisted with such fury,
I could never have counted
them all. But when she
first lifted her hand
to my ear, I felt
the end and the beginning
of each nerve, that live web
under the skin: shimmer,
The “glissando” that follows, combined with the hand touching the speaker’s ear, makes this poem echo not just with the myth of Apollo and Daphne but also the second of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, the girl who arises from song and “sleeps” in the speaker’s ear, another transformation in which girlhood seems only be preserved through the dissolution or death of the self. “Girl Myth” ends with a rejection of the woman’s attempt to determine the girl’s/speaker’s story:
What chronology cannot
be counted by rings.
It is impossible. She wants
to convince me
of how every girl gives
birth to herself: her hands
clutching the troubled cord,
one foot snared along its root.
The myth locates the finding of self, sexuality, and birth of the self into a “troubled cord,” a tether that binds the girl to her lineage even in the act of attempting to claim her freedom; the cord (perhaps also a chord of music that echoes in the ear?) lingers as the last image of the poem in the very act of the speaker’s resistance to the narrative.
The struggle to reclaim the narrative of the self reflects back onto global environmental damage: in “Earth, Torn and Turned,” sounds and images look back to the ravaged earth. In one sequence, after all of the poems of dryness and yearning for water, a speaker who has stayed behind turns our attention to the destroyed planet left behind by the colonizers, first the polluted waters: “the last of it / floats where the mirror did, in myth.” In a nod to Robert Browning, “Whoever spoke of love / among the ruins // saw the world through / a pinhole, an index card // punched for eclipse” (43). The poem ends with the broken remnants of wind farms, a tardy and feeble attempt to reverse the ecological destruction we have wrought, and again asserts how the “good intentions” behind this new colonial enterprise may well be in vain:
There are no birds on the sea.
Only white blades float.
These spinning machines—first in Sistan, Alexandria,
and now here, placed
as an afterthought—we built
with the best of intentions. We meant them
to outlast us, stand
in for our misgivings. And to colonize,
far from land, the last of
the old world’s scattered wind.
This “old world” is invoked in a number of other poems, including the fourth “Backflash” poem, which references both Marco Polo and Columbus. “Columbus, Mars” uses the name of a land formation on Mars to map layers and generations of grief, loss, destruction and predation onto the moment of the first landing on the planet in Rogers’ future world. (To return to the experience of reading this book at this particular moment in history, it is fitting to note, when considering Rogers’ treatment of the legacy of colonization in the Western Hemisphere, that the regular updates from the Oregon Health Authority include not only age and mortality rates, but also infection and death rates separated out by race and ethnicity; the disparities in the numbers tell the same story as her poems.) Touch, now loaded through the girl/Lolita poems that have preceded this piece functions as a central motif beginning with the opening lines: “Just when we agreed / we’d overreached, touched / that ragged, final edge.” Figuring the landing as a sexualized encounter, the speaker continues, “Out of thin air, we became / toponymists, touched every place / we’d named: // alluring transfixed / fertile? inclined to love // Who would stop us // from drawing this map too, / in a girl’s naked image?” The poem closes with the first colonizers imagining the myth-making of the future and circling back again, recursively, to the image of Columbus’ ships: “tell the kids: / Long ago, a fleet of men / let their parachutes bloom // over dessicated ground. / The lost blue pilot felt / the wind tear his face // just before his feet touched down, / his mind gone blank, like sailcloth.”
Before the final shorter, lyrical and beautiful poem, two long pieces round out the collection, “The Northern Lights, As Seen from Mars” and “Fugue for Wind and Pipes.” “Northern Lights” a long poem that circles themes from the rest of the book through the image of the night sky; it is the first of two poems in which the title phrase appears (in this case during a sequence about the Middle Passage). Music, sound, and language in the “old world” once again create a tapestry from a world which is simultaneously heightened and muted by isolation, atmosphere, distance, and music. In a section that reaches back into the past imagining the speaker’s great-grandmother looking into the sky, the ancestor’s name itself evokes music: “Bell was her name. Like waves of any / color, the sound of it breaks best / in a medium of crisp, cold air.” The poem also turns (surprisingly, elegiacally, gorgeously) to the music of Goodnight Moon:
Goodnight hunter and goat
in the sky, blur and veil:
not enough pixels to see
the ruin’s full. Goodnight
old Earth, that far blue
After the surprise of this section come another set of prescient lines that echo into 2020 as the days darken and our isolation deepens:
If you touched me, also, I might
ring and splinter,
as when a foot falls
on a pond’s shallow ice
How anyone survives
one dormant season
and then another –
carrying their bodies
under the weightless winter sky –
I cannot say.
The final sonnet crown in the collection has the added (and impressive) complexity of being a contrapuntal fugue poem as well. The repeated elements sometimes appear in the middle of a sonnet, just across the page from the voice opposite that then picks it up. It is a feat that draws upon the conceit that music on Mars would be heard differently both because atmospheric pressure limits the range sound is carried; also all pitches are at a higher frequency than on Earth because of the thin atmosphere. And here we encounter the title phrase of the collection one more time:
In truth, I am against recounting (II) There is an unknowable slit between
my own story. I fear wind will split the Mars musician and her hearer:
words back to their meaningless elements, zone where all noise is
carbon snapped from oxygen, the tilt torn enveloped, a quicksand
away from the seasons. Any sound is found composed of empty, careless sparks.
now kilometers away from its voice Standing next to the organ, you must have
recognized the tune from a church
on Earth, though the key has slipped some
(I) On earth, where the key slipped on the chromatic ladder: the red sound
slowly from major to minor, lowering its flame into yellow.
The tilt torn away from the seasons: the tip of the axis of the new planet no longer correlates to the lost weather and climate of the erstwhile home, and as we read Rogers’ poems we ourselves witness the seasons being torn from their previous rhythms through the ravages of climate change, the wages of centuries of exploitation of the earth’s natural and human resources. But also the bending of one person to another in intimacy, perhaps, the sound of two voices answering each other in a different atmosphere, the shifting “numbers” invoked at the beginning and end of the poem from the altered physics of the new terrain. We have taken steps we cannot reverse, but can we, considering the speaker in the poem “Ecopoeisis,” resolve not just to “form more carefully,” but actually carefully enough—or is that an impossible task? The woman at the end of the final poem sings, as Rogers’ poems do; life even when ending or hopeless is still beautiful, persistent, singing even when the altered atmosphere changes the pitch, thinking of a past we regret and can never recover, taking (perhaps heedless or futile) risks for the good of others.