Lucy Sheerman’s Rarefied (falling without landing)

Lucy Sheerman was born in Wales and grew up in West Yorkshire. Her work has recently been included in the Shearsman anthology Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets, edited by Carrie Etter, and The International Egg and Poultry Review (Friends Magazine 2). She also has a commissioned piece of work in Archive of the Now, a digital collection of poets performing their own work, based at Queen Mary, University of London.

She set up the rem press poetry series with Karlien van den Beukel and ran the poetic practice seminar with Redell Olsen and Andrea Brady. She is currently a literature specialist at the Arts Council, working to support the development of writers and new writing. She lives with her partner and four children in Cambridge. Rarefied (falling without landing) is published by Oystercatcher Press.


Lucy writes:

“I wrote the sequence in response to the documentary Apollo Wives, a series of interviews with the wives of the Apollo astronauts. They talked about the experience of being plunged into the media spotlight while their husbands were on the Apollo programme and how they formed strong bonds with each other while living in close proximity on a military housing base.
Structurally I have been using fairly strict constraints to number of lines and number of beats in a line, but these are significantly longer than the palette I used to work with. I find that it has been very liberating to lengthen my lines and it has felt like reintroducing oxygen into the writing to a degree. The ability to let the writing breathe and allow a vestige of narrative provided an entry point into the work which however I felt I could still control. Some of my earlier work had got so sparse that it was almost visual. This shift meant the text became more expansive, capable of including narrative, memory and speech in quite a different way.
Rarefied (Sinatra, misappropriated) was written during a period when I was writing late at night and early in the morning while the children were asleep so I felt I was writing by moonlight and it was quite solitary – my partner tends to disappear during term time, similarly my father was absent during the week. Witnessing and then experiencing that sense of dislocation resonated.
One of the wives talked about looking up at the moon and not being able to believe her husband was really up there. That image of longing became the kernel of the sequence. Another interviewee talked about her attempts to get the lawn to grow in the desert conditions they were living in and how it had been all but destroyed by the paparazzi thronging around her home during the moon landings. I liked the marriage of that domestic concern with the vast abstract experience of staring at the moon. The inability to conceive of her husband being on the moon and the being in the moment of looking down at an untidy lawn suggests why people are more able to believe the moon landings are a hoax, an elaborate filmed sequence shot in a studio, than a real event.
Some of the photographs and the image I had of a woman looking up at the moon linked with the story of Ariadne waking up on Naxos to discover she has been abandoned by Theseus. Catullus’ description of this moment is beautiful, but so is his sympathetic description of Theseus’ memory being distorted, allowing him to leave Ariadne behind because he has been made to forget her. The balance Catullus presents gave me the structure to describe both the experience of the wives and of the astronauts as they left earth. It became a trope for understanding the splitting that took place between the astronauts and their wives and the old world. I loved Catullus’s motif of a weaving shuttle so I used that too. One of the interviewees described the experience of being left and living through the Apollo programme as ‘like being shipwrecked together’. The idea of floating, being set adrift, of being marooned permeates all these narratives.
I used details about the Apollo missions lifted from the NASA and Wikipedia websites and the words of the astronauts and their wives. I used stories and quotations from a lot of different individuals so it doesn’t represent one single narrative, more of a composite. They all bring facets of the experience of being left or of leaving, of strangeness and alienation. I liked the way they combined into a story made up of fragments and although that makes some aspects of the tale short circuit or resistant to forming a satisfying narrative it added to the overriding sense of the normal becoming abnormal as it does in moonlight and when close relationships start to distort.
The interviews and accounts of the landings defer to the potency of images, the experience of being watched and photographed. For example, one of the key scenes of the film is of a photographer posing and shooting the wives in the desert. Families were photographed on the ‘death watch’ as they observed lift off; when Apollo 12 was struck by lightning these photographs seem to mediate the trauma, and make it meaningful for the viewer. On this mission, the NASA ground crew put pictures of Playboy playmates into the Apollo checklists with captions such as ‘seen any interesting hills or valleys lately’ – the moon is a woman, but so is the earth. It’s a simultaneous leaving behind and being separated from the familiar, earthy, for the abstract, echoing the description of Theseus’ departure.
The photographs and memories in the documentary were often distorted by time or by physical barriers. Images of the moon, the earth and other people are obscured or mediated by lenses, television screens, visors, sunglasses, newspaper reports or Wikipedia entries. On one mission the camera was destroyed when it was pointed directly at the sun and no images were broadcast. Nevertheless these images became a short hand for lived experience or feeling. People were watching the moon landings on television and projecting their aspirations or desires onto the astronauts and even their families. It creates a reality in which a stranger’s appearance shapes the emotional responses of others, giving it a hyperreal importance.
The idea of surfaces and appearances also exist in the description of family relationships. The wives reported being told not to quarrel with their husbands when they came home on leave. When they were away on missions the wives held up signs for the media painted with the words ‘thrilled, happy, proud’, things they were advised to say to the reporters who mobbed them. There are photographs of them carrying them like speech bubbles, or placards. One of the astronauts left a picture of his family on the moon. It seems like a tangible abandonment although I don’t think that is how it was perceived.
Many of the marriages ended in divorce – so that metaphorically these leavings or separations were real and became permanent. The alcoholism and depression amongst the men and the women involved underlines the ripping apart from each other, from the world in a way that was irrevocable. It’s the price of the knowledge and wonder they gained.
The motif of surfaces and their fragility is implicit in the risk of the whole enterprise. One of the daughters had a recurring nightmare that her father kicked through the skin of the rocket ship and was sucked into space. It suggests how delicate the ties holding people together were, how easily wrenched or cut. It echoes the damage that happens to the weft and warp of the stories and narratives relayed. The Apollo 10 spacecraft at the science museum is so fragile – seeing it underlines the nature of the leap of faith they all made and how much they had to lose.”
ii.  Theseus
Captured in the rapture of the moment,
the universe shaking the shining stars.
His co-ordinates fixed. Time-trapped. Airborne.
Considering the heavens breathtaking,
finds he takes no special joy in walking.
Each small step a measurement of distance,
mapping out interesting hills and valleys,
voluptuous encounters with strangeness.
He has a finite number of heartbeats –
wasted while looking back. Not halting, he
gains speed. Crash landing into history.

What is man that thou art mindful of him?
When he comes apart in tiny pieces
just like this tiny pea, pretty and blue.
Earth disappears behind his thumb – eclipsed.
He lets all slip from his forgetful mind.
Biddings fading, the image left behind,
obliterated. Only his footprint
lingering near the family snapshot.
A square of memory, plastic coated.
All shaded in his thoughts with blind dimness.

The camera points directly sunwards
and he is lost in a blaze of light. Blinks,
feels the sickening sense of weightlessness
bringing nausea spreading across skin.
These first footsteps last forever almost.
Sensing perhaps he might never go back
he longs for animation suspended,
solitude, paler than the gleam of gold.
Lightness floating across his face like dust,
shimmering. Hand shadowing eyes, he waves.

Back home they can hear the commentary.
Pinned to their seats, eyes fixed upon the screen,
they watch the world as the world watches them.
Aflame with longing for this bright mirage,
guests crowd in close and closer. Avidly
taking speech shorthand, light flashes pulse.
Never minding them if they leave her be,
She grips the cigarette and absently
counts down to the next sip of martini.
Transmission ends, all contact lost. Static.
from Rarefied (falling without landing) (Oystercatcher Press, 2012).
Order Rarefied (falling without landing).
Read a review of Rarefied (falling without landing).

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