Antaeus Ad Astra: A Poem
A few months ago, Jeff Bezos went to space. Sort of. The CEO of Amazon, richest man since Mansa Musa, and compulsive ten-gallon-cowboy-hat-wearer blasted himself off into (and beyond) the sky in a rocket which (as many have noted but which bears repeating) looked extremely like a massive cock.
10 minutes later, he was back again, having cusped beyond the Kármán line (the sketchily-defined boundary separating the upper atmosphere from outer space) for a couple of seconds, alongside his other crew members.
It seems you either buy into this mission or not. You’re either entirely on Team Bezos or you’re part of the carousel of dick-joke memes. Maybe something as baldly immense as The Cosmos defies nuance (to say nothing of someone so baldly and corruptedly rich as Bezos). But is there some other possible response to the new Joy Ride Space Race? What can we think about other than ‘wonder’ on the one hand and ‘willies’ on the other?
The wonder of space is twofold. It is, of course, the ‘Final Frontier’, a vacuum so total and terrifying that it draws us into itself. We have a compulsion towards the unknown, and nothing defines the unknown quite like space. But, perhaps even more potently, we’re drawn out into the abyss so that we can look back on ourselves. Its blackness is a mirror. Centuries before Bezos’ bell-ended rocket, outer space was imagined as a vantage point for self-searching. Dante, Chaucer, and many of their Classical precedents imagined upward ascents with the goal of looking back. Cicero’s famous passage relating the Dream of Scipio sees the Roman General carried up into the cosmos to look down on Carthage. Once there, he views its smallness and fragility with scorn.
But let’s consider a more optimistic version of this trope. In Jean Corbichon’s 15th Century French translation of the 13th Century On the Properties of Things by Bartholomeus Anglicus, a very curious image appears (see above). Four men, scientists or philosophers, look through a porthole down onto the globe of the earth, deep in discussion. As an excellent video from Birkbeck, University of London, explains, this picture makes us “think about looking”, and think about ourselves.
Where this vision differs from Bezos’ is important. In the picture, our planet is spiked with structures, and the alien terrain on which the men stand is a flourishing natural landscape. This might easily suggest to our modern mind a group of environmentalists lamenting the urban sprawl which makes Earth look bristling, uninviting. The phallic upward thrust of architecture is envisioned as a globalised competition, a capitalistic impulse which, in reaching upwards, in fact sees us fall away from the Golden Age ideal of Eden. The alien garden (which researchers identify as including recognisable flora from across the globe, from Europe to Baghdad and Jerusalem) and its turban-wearing philosophers offer an attractive counterpoint to the globalising consumerism of Christianity and its spires, below.
Secondly, this image is an imagined one, not a literal spaceflight. It’s an accessible vision, inviting debate and discussion, a matter of perspective and thought. We, the viewers, stand alongside the scientists, seeing what they see, participating in their talks. With them, we look down on ourselves. It’s an image of fantastical ambition and wonder, but at all times a shared and humanised one. Let’s not forget that this illustration appears in a book which discusses everything from outer space to people’s spit. There’s a democratic spread of thought and vision, here, alongside which Cowboy Bezos’ billionaire posturing looks to have missed the point, taking an overly-literal approach to the question.
Jeff’s trip to almost-outer-space reminded me also of the mythical figure of Antaeus. A giant from Libya, Antaeus was an unbeatable wrestler. The source of his strength was contact with the ground. If his opponent threw him down, he simply gained greater power, stood up, and won the match. It was Heracles who finally had the smart idea of lifting him up, therefore rendering him powerless.
Seamus Heaney wrote a beautiful poem about Antaeus, imagining the giant’s troubled interior monologue, the insecurity of a power which knows its own fatal weakness. It’s an acute skewering of the kind of overcompensating male panic which might, for example, see a divorced man spend millions of dollars on a dick-shaped spaceship. Heaney’s Antaeus is proud and bombastic, inviting all challengers, as long as they meet him in his cave. His weakness he describes, in a delicately-hinged oxymoron, as “My elevation, my fall”.
Watching, during a time of unimaginable crisis, the world’s richest person tap our global resources of money, time, and collective attention to fuel his own project of elevation felt, to me, like a great fall. It also literally was a fall, if looked at in a certain way. At the peak of his flight, Bezos was at zero-G, beyond that Kármán line, and so the whole concept of ‘up’ became arbitrary. His rocket had fallen off the world. He’d entered a zone in which up, down, and any other hierarchical construct, fell away into nothingness. Hopefully he learned something.
The poem below imagines Antaeus as an aspiring astronaut (Antaeus Ad Astra of course meaning ‘Antaeus to the stars’). His desire to rise above the earth I imagine as the result of a childhood experience. Reading an Atlas of the earth, the child Antaeus feels compelled to consume it whole. His vast and sensuous ambition leads him to put his tongue to the page. He tries to eat the earth, but it rebukes him. He rises away, hurt, defeated, divorced, and vows to keep on rising, separating, relishing the pain. Only when he achieves this solo pursuit and finally breaks free of the atmosphere does he realise, like Heaney’s Antaeus, that his elevation is his fall. If the poem hopes to mean anything, it’s in occupying this kind of all-consuming mindset to expose its fragilities. Also, the rocket is a bit like a penis.
Antaeus Ad Astra
Snow makes shapes like flame.
Crystals of atmosphere blister on contact
with the obliterative heat of the metal.
Zones of sky implode around the rockethead.
At the peak of its parabola,
like any flung thing,
the craft hits, for a moment, stillness,
an apogee of bandied zeroes,
no gravity, no miles-per-hour.
A pulse preoccupies the universe
with this first of our fallen-off,
dawning into dark like nothing’s womb,
the absoluteness of an infinite ‘before’.
Before which, years before, imagine Antaeus,
younger (though eternal), crouched
above his Atlas laying on the ground,
corrupted spine split and abused, wrestled
shoulders set against the muck of earth,
open on pictures of world; corrugated rivers,
fluked mountainsides, ruffs of contours
rippled over land, carpets of ocean.
Billionaire-to-be, the boy-Antaeus
tongues at the print, wanting hot mud,
a bristle of poison bracken, earthblood.
But the world retracts its meadows like a count
down. Taste recedes to page and ink.
Saliva blots Pacifics like a mould.
And Antaeus rose blushed above.
In backing off the Atlas-world he feels
the sinews strain, wrought air-flesh
stretched like creaking cling-film between
his aching chest and the earth-page,
feeling the sweet juice of a welcome pain,
like bothering the blooming scab of a wound
or nudging an ulcer in a pocket of gum,
suffering elevation, going on being loosed.
Now, as T-minus crumbles into zero,
the rocket lists away from the globe,
the curled-up-seahorse of the human self
among some subcutaneous sac
parts its soft protuberant beak, as if
to speak anything at all to mark the break.
And, for a moment, every human eye
across the planet squints through silent distances.
On the cap of the rocket the atmosphere’s remaining
ice and ozone boom into a thin
balloon, and Antaeus the astronaut
leans to stretch his nose across the Kármán
line, hand over head over heels in love
with the selfhood of his solo oblivion.
With an inward sigh the vacuum enters
his body prising away from its own material
and he floats. Muscle and tissue catch
a drift away from every part of themselves,
and tides of blood begin to lilt and waft
like cleaned-off meat in kitchen sinks.
For the few bought seconds outside
of our globe does Antaeus gain a purchase
on the arbitrated network of ‘up’?
Does once again his fisted tongue
taste ink? Does inky dark begin to bulge
capillaries across his brain? The shiver
in the backs of his knees give him to know
the incontestable reality that up,
down, and every related idea, do not
exist, there’s only motion, falling (out,
away, or into place), relation to
the peopled and its opposite space?
The stars, turning, have no backs to turn,
going on away into increasing speeds,
their boiling mass of total surface just
faces in every direction, forever.