WHEN J. F. K. stole the 1960 presidential election from Richard Nixon, his victory also marked the passing of the quaintly titled "Atomic Age" and the arrival of the more dynamic "Space Age" (a now lost metaphor for the 1960s). Kennedy's "New Frontier" administration vowed to land a man on the moon by decade's end. The resulting space flights - especially the epoch-making Apollo 11 - made household gods of astronauts and glamorous romance, despite the gizmos, of their adventures. Yet the space missions inspired little poetry for two reasons: first, science had been raised above verse by the Industrial Revolution (or Reaction); second, high-tech, white-male-conducted space exploration seemed elitist in comparison with mundane concerns such as Vietnamese children being burned to death by American napalm.
In this only home, his eighth collection of verse, the Saskatchewan-born poet Dennis Cooley has crafted several fine poems about space, its explorers, its watchers, and its significance. After a chance encounter with The Home Planet, a book of photographs of Earth that included commentary by astronauts and cosmonauts, Cooley notes in his introduction that he was captured by "the astonishing beauty" of this "huge blue eyeball staring into space"; hence, "the poems came."
These 91 poems are essentially love lyrics - exaltations of the stars and astronomers and the poeticized ana of space sojourners. Indeed, Cooley accents humanity, not technology. He tried, his introduction states, "to catch what for me is a nearly stricken sense of the largeness and the homesickness these people felt, their awe too, in midst of their machines and charts."
And he sometimes succeeds. "Peeping toms," which treats the passion of "Kepler Brahe Galileo" for star-gazing ("they are ravished in nocturnal emissions") also evokes their diurnal lives. "Kepler" builds upon the earlier poem to provide a nearepic treatment of the worldly horrors of his time:
I am Johannes Kepler keeper of the
numbers and the stars
born inside religious war and broken
and I have seen bodies cracked open on
hate and hunger
my own aunt roasted alive at the stake
and my mother
almost my wife burnt away on a fever of
men in my times torn apart by mares
eyes singed out...
the whole world it seemed without mercy
Another strong poem, "Newton," illuminates the famed scientist's reflections on light:
from the edge it arced
sun broke through fell out
the bright oblongs saw it
burst into spectrum through his head
the heady speculations ached him
"Delta" presents an astronaut's-eye-view of an aspect of Earth: "the mouth of the miss / issippi you lean over & / it is sipping ... .. Night prairie" rejoices in "a huge excavation of light." Perhaps because he is a Prairie poet, Cooley's love for the spaciousness of the plains easily extends to the sky above. Prolixity betrays the origin of some poems in sheer passion; hence, they work well only in part. Generally, Cooley manages to fuse Ondaatje-like rhythms and sensual imagery with Whitmanesque expansiveness. Like Ondaatie's Billy the Kid, this book is really an extended lyricsequence. In this only home, Cooley pastoralizes space, thereby reminding us that the cosmos is part of nature, that the stars are part of ourselves. The final frontier is always within.