Then, Mars

Reviewed by Clayton Longstaff

On February 18, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover, endearingly nicknamed “Percy”, landed on Mars, sending back to earth the first videos and high-resolution colour photographs of the red planet. Meanwhile on earth, deaths attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic well surpassed two million and nearly half of the total population of Texas was catapulted into a Dark Ages-like state of no heat, no electricity, no running water, and, for some, no food, amid a record-breaking cold snap that held a large portion of North America in its grip. I watched the landing live on my computer while I lied in bed listening to The Beatles with these three books, Donna Kane’s Orrery, M. Travis Lane’s Keeping Count, and Dani Spinosa’s 00: Typewriter Poems, scattered where I could reach them if the visuals on my computer screen got too dizzying. Which they did, immediately. It was like what you see when you stick your head out of the window on the freeway and pry your eyelids back, but the car was going over thirty thousand kilometres an hour and the freeway was a literal expanse of nothing. Then, Mars.

My bed has become an epicentre for global news, world cinema, natural history, and a  myriad of curiosities that pass for thought these days. The interstice, in this case the Google Search portal, is relentless in its effort to bridge the space between the world and me, answering every question I jam into it, from “How old is the world?” to “What colour of shoes should I buy?” When I initially searched the poet Dani Spinosa’s surname, the initial letter “S” first offered the end of a leash to “SpaceX”—a search term from when my partner’s mom’s partner said she saw a string of lights in the sky that might have been a UFO but was actually the hideous face of one of our own, orbiting the night while most of us slept. Next, Google suggested “spice or herb”, from when I realized that I couldn’t define the difference between the two. “D” came up as, “Do sharp-tailed snakes lay eggs?” When an etymology website told me that the word “world” was a compound of the Old English words wer (man) and eld (age), meaning roughly “age of man,” I wondered if what the headlines that I was reading and rereading as typos were in fact true: that Perseverance was the largest, most advanced rover NASA had ever sent to another world. That planets besides our own were becoming worlds. And that the only chance we had at saving our own, the original world, would indeed require some kind of un-worlding.

The aesthetic experience of being immersed in the presence of art may offer a version of un-worlding. A song, for example, that, for the few minutes it plays, carries you not away but deeper into your own realm of subjectivity. A sculpture, whose contours in the particular moment of viewing it appear to trace the ridges and gullies of some dark, meandering, cavernous interiority of your own. The world and your experience of it are momentarily one. An act of love, I imagine. This love, this deep connection with the physical world, this prioritization of what is here, what is underfoot, is what lights fireworks from within the poetry of M. Travis Lane.

a lover’s knot redone, redoing,

yes —


but pull a thread:

music turns[.]

Lane’s Keeping Count lets the thread unravel, revealing a world that is constantly spinning into life inside our own. But maybe “world” isn’t the right word.

The book begins and, for the most part, remains in the tight, condensed, lyrical style for which Lane has been heralded since her debut collection was first published back in 1969. The subjects that carry the poems in her latest collection are the rocks, birds, rivers, and seasons of her Fredericton home in New Brunswick. However, each of these sites becomes a locus of transformation and renewal, surprising the reader as a mirror slides in between the page and the reader’s eyes. An example of this pivoting occurs in a poem titled “The Satellite,” in which the lonely, impertinent “star” “stares / as if it were significant / but not, like stars, reliable.” Uncertainty, as a fundamental characteristic of life, and the desire to control uncertainty being the impetus behind so much of humankind’s most damning activities, works in these poems to suspend the reader from leaning on fixity as a crutch.

Uncertainty is celebrated in these pages as an open invitation to imagine, wonder at, the magic that constantly surrounds us. A poem called “The Comfort That We Knew” catches the spirit of beauty in the face of uncertainty—the willfulness of enduring life and love when one is certain in its transience and the other undefinable:

Without intention, joy, or grief,

we crumble like a faded leaf:

to dust to rock to starry plain —

a different life starts up again —


not mine, not yours, but new

and, like our own, is transient.

And love                     and love?

is still our home.


Be patient.

In an end note to the book, Lane gives a brief prosaic account of what she calls “Deep Listening.” “Had I as a child ever heard silence?” she asks herself. As her hearing declines she finds herself listening even closer, though now it appears memory has become inextricable from her sense perception: “[W]hispering poets have merged for me into the sounds of water on stone or wind on trees.”  Despite being a poet of exquisite observation, her subjects of study never fail to reflect the gaze back at the viewer.

Like the satellite in M. Travis Lane’s poem, which the speaker acknowledges may not be there tomorrow but elsewhere, “still blind, still ignorant, / [staring] at someone else’s night,” Donna Kane’s latest collection of poetry takes a space craft for its subject. However, unlike M. Travis Lane, Kane doesn’t let the space craft leave her sight. NASA’s Pioneer 10, a space probe launched in 1972 to study Jupiter’s moons, is the centripetal force that holds Orrery in the human orbit, exploring consciousness, materiality, temporality, and what it means to be both literally and metaphorically a body caught in space.

Despite light years of meaningless meandering, the human image is a reflection that Pioneer 10 simply cannot escape. Having retired in 2003 when NASA stopped sending signals to it, Pioneer 10 continues to roam deep space without intent or purpose—a perfect symbol of both capitalistic refuse and the existential problem that consciousness carries with it. Brought into existence only to be abandoned when its utilization becomes obsolete, forever thereafter condemned to wander without ever wondering why—but is this secretly the real mission? this ability to escape the question why? Is this the metaphor that will carry consciousness through the brain’s padded walls, past its gravitational boundaries to where the world really is—not the “age of man,” but where things exist outside of ourselves? “The world that impenetrable, / the lake so cold and clear if you leapt, / you know you would disappear.”

Even though much of Orrery takes place in a land far far away, in thinking about space travel Donna Kane uncovers truths about humankind that make living on earth appear just as dazzling, wondrous, and nebulous as a trip through the cosmos. “For years, I tried to picture the Earth’s orbit,” begins her poem “On the Material World.” The speaker’s husband enters the scene with an egg, an orange, and a flashlight. However, when trying to recount the astronomy lesson later, all that she remembers is her husband’s figure, her bodily reaction to it:

I tried again to imagine the Earth’s spin and tilt

in the eye of my mind, but couldn’t detach

from my bodied weight, the place where thought

took shape and mattered.

Notions of materiality and the embodiment of thought emerge poignant and luminous as the speaker’s gaze turns upwards and the imagination extends out. Still, this directionality of “up” and “out” is contested when the speaker of “Ascension” points brilliantly to the sun: “how it rises each morning, / how our bodies shine with its light.” The speaker’s church is the church of light, which glows in everybody under the sun. It’s here, it’s there, it’s everywhere.

Dani Spinosa’s latest book of poetry is a collection of glosas that is conceptually radical, formally daring, and stylistically wonderful—as smart and imaginative as anything one should by now expect of Spinosa. The poems in 00: Typewriter Poems are mostly appropriations of major (male) figures in the tradition of visual poetics, forging a conversation with masculinist ideals in a fashion that is by some way of enchantment able to simultaneously critique, challenge, pay tribute, and honour.

The word “conversation” is critical to Dani Spinosa’s vision of not only poetry, but literature in general. This is a vision of literature that is “built on writing as an act of sharing, of becoming stronger and more beautiful in the ways that our writing reads back over the writing that came before it, and leaves itself open and unfinished for the writing that comes after.” It isn’t a rejection, per se, of the masculine principle that views writing as a solitary act, a one-man show (the word author itself comes from the Old French “autor,” meaning “father”, “creator”), but instead anatomizes that idea and rearranges its parts to create something new. This is the true spirit of the vanguardist tradition. Still, by refusing to reject what came before her, Spinosa lands in a unique position of innovation and tradition—a contradictory seat in which this writer appears quite comfortable, though it might infuriate those whose salaries are made by carving leaded lines of clear distinction. “[W]omen borrow,” Kate Siklosi suggests in a conversation with Spinosa in the afterword included in the book. “We borrow all the time. We borrow stories from each other to protect ourselves. We borrow each other’s clothes. We borrow things from each other because for us it’s an exchange.” This idea of “borrowing as a feminist act” speaks to the glosa form and what Spinosa’s adaptation of it means in the context of her project. These poems never feel as if they were made judgementally, or out of a place of hate. These are not attacks. Spinosa herself even goes as far as calling the book “a collection of love poems,” which is a sentiment with reverberations all throughout.

It’s her remarkable balance as she walks the line to hypocrisy that makes Spinosa singular  as a feminist, a poet, and a scholar: “What’s at stake really for me in this moment to say: I really hate the machismo persona that’s a part of this thing I love, but I also just, like, love that thing and love what it is? And maybe I even love the writing with your dick part. Maybe there’s something nice about that.” In 00: Typewriter Poems, Spinosa communicates with love that contradiction is inherent to the typeface.


This review “Then, Mars” originally appeared in Poetics and Extraction Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 251 (2022): 173-176.

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