Elegy, Apollo 1

Du mußt dein Leben andern

As the cockpit filled with fire it must have seemed
the rockets were erupting backwards, as if to drive
the ship’s alloys back down into ore-crammed
veins underground, the astronauts in their cave

of circuitry and radium, shot drifting to the north
as atoms, ash for gravity and the draughts
to reconcile with their home country, earth.
Last night, that nightmare you have where jets

like reckless sons are shuttling from the skies
skywriting this: you have to. Change. Du muβt.
The dashboard’s face of glowing dials and gauges

like the calm, measured mask of Apollo, fused
to madness, melts, its data burning with the eyes
of tigers starving in tin-can cages.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Elegy, Apollo 1”?

I hope it doesn’t sound as if I’m claiming prophetic foresight when I tell you that years before 9/11, I used to have dreams where I watched a large airliner crash into the ground or into the sea or into, yes, a large building. I expect dreams like weren’t all that unusual even before 9/11. After giving the dreams some thought, I explained them to myself as parables of hubris: the airplanes, or sometimes rockets, embodied the upward-striving, materialist mindset that conducts all of us in the industrialized world a little farther from the earth than is good for the body and the imagination.

There’s a sense in which you can personify the industrialized world as a control freak.

To get more personal: I often resented the skeptical side of my own nature that made it hard to “let go” fully, to achieve any sort of ecstasy short of chemical intervention. In this poem—written for a book called The Ecstasy of Skeptics, which explores the divide between ecstasy and… well, you get the idea) I tried to explore that hubris. The epigraphic German phrase, meaning “you must change your life,” comes from Rilke’s famous poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” in his Sonnets to Orpheus.

That’s what inspired the poem, and now I’ve told you how I think the poem works, but bear in mind what D.H. Lawrence said about fiction: “The author sets out to point a moral. Characteristically the tale, however, points in another direction.” If readers think this poem of mine points in some direction other than what I intended, so be it.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Elegy, Apollo 1”?

The poem is a sonnet of no fixed address—i.e., it doesn’t adhere to any particular pattern (like the pattern of the Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet). Still, it does have the standard fourteen lines, and also observes other sonnet-like constraints: I use an octave (ababcdcd) and a sestet (efgfeg); I use slant (or consonantal) rhyme (seemed/crammed, drive/cave), which I much prefer to perfect rhyme; and the sonnet’s metre varies between five and six beats per line (I seem naturally to write in eleven syllable lines, or longer, instead of the ten preferred by so many poets writing in English).

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