ON LOOKING UP

by Emily Rose Cole

ISSUE THIRTEEN | FALL 2019

I'll find you in the morning sun

And when the night is new

I'll be looking at the moon

But I'll be seeing you

 

—Billy Holiday, “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1944)

* * *

 

On February 13th, 2019, my best friend L told me that NASA sent Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” in their last data uplink to the Mars Opportunity Rover. Predictably, I reacted first to the music itself—“Good choice,” I said, because the truth was, I cared more about Billie Holiday than I did about the Opportunity Rover. Which is to say, I felt greater emotional connection to the music of a jazz singer who died thirty years before I was born than I did to the death of a space robot. I’m more comfortable metaphorically reaching backward, through time, than reaching upward, through space. 

But L loves space, loves it with her whole, star-dazzled heart. That day, she told me tearfully that NASA’s Rover programs represent “the purest manifestations of how much we want to know about the universe we live in.” The loss of this little robot was, to her, like the loss of a friend, not because she’s ever “met” it, but because it represented the viscerally human impulse to learn about the world and the mysteries beyond its atmosphere. 


 

* * *

 

For me, the purest representation of wanting to know more comes from art, not from science, but that’s only because the two of us are looking for the same kind of meaning from different quarters. Science has always been the realm of external discovery, of curiosity about the universe and its behavior. These discoveries are fundamental to human survival, and I’m grateful every day for our scientists and their abundant curiosity. But I lack the fervor for external discovery that a scientist, or a science enthusiast like L, might possess. I’m more enamored by the human impulse for internal discovery, especially the metaphors that we make of the world and what those metaphors teach us about our capacity to connect to each other. 

While L looks up, I look in. I perceive outer space, its beauty and mystery, as a metaphor to understand grief. A supermoon, in one of my poems, becomes an analogue for my own lesion-riddled brain, “its cracks & craters almost close / enough to touch.” Through writing, I can bend the moon in service of my metaphors, use it as a touchstone to illuminate pain, or joy, or any other slippery, undefinable feeling. Perhaps that’s self-indulgent, but I don’t see self-indulgence as an inherent flaw. Making metaphor of the moon won’t change the moon—it’ll still be made of basalt rock, its gravity would still be 17% of Earth’s—but it might change how I think about grief or joy or illness. The metaphor reaches outward and attaches an insubstantial feeling to a specific object, giving unwieldy emotions a physical form. Your grief is real, says the metaphor. It is like the moon. 

 

* * *

 

This is what I want to do for L. She’s my friend, and she’s grieving over something that I don’t understand, so, poet that I am, I’m looking inward, writing into my own feelings to try to understand hers. But maybe the answer was right there all along. When she told me why she was sad, she talked not about the Rover itself, but what the Rover meant to her, that pure representation of what we want to know. 

When we grieve for an object, we don’t just grieve the object’s loss, but the loss of the metaphors we’ve attached to it. We conflate the Rover with its name: we’ve lost not just a groundbreaking piece of technology, but an opportunity to discover more about Mars than we knew before.

 

* * *

 

The hard truth of friendship—of living—is that there is nothing I can do about grief, except attempt to understand it. This essay is an artifact of that attempt, and even then, I know I won’t really get close. The complexities of another person, even a dear friend with whom I speak every day, are ultimately as inaccessible to me as the terrain of Mars. But I can only hope that my impulse for inward discovery is still useful. That perhaps it can ease the difficulty inherent in grieving for a powered-down robot on a planet over a 140 million miles away. That it can say, with certainty, your grief is real. It is like mine.  

Emily Rose Cole is the author of a chapbook, Love & a Loaded Gun, from Minerva Rising Press. She has received awards from Jabberwock Review, Philadelphia Stories, and the Academy of American Poets. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets 2018, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Pinch, and Southern Indiana Review, among others. She holds an MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and is pursuing a PhD in Poetry and Disability Studies at the University of Cincinnati. You can reach her via her website at emilyrosecolepoetry.com.

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