Kate Timmers’ poem “Philae Lands on Comet 67P/C-G,” one of the winners in our 2015 Occasional Verse contest, continues to haunt. The adjudicators said of it:
I like that this is an unconventional occasion: or, rather, a conventional occasion (the lover’s departure) mapped onto an unconventional one. And the lovely surprise of this poem’s ending, where the comet-lander suddenly becomes a figure for the abandoned lover. Good use of enjambment to tease out layers of meaning.
I really like how this poem takes quotidian experience—a leave-taking, an oil change, a migraine, a bad connection (both senses)—and then derives from a chance encounter with something in the headlines the perfect metaphor to lift the speaker’s experience into something startling, stark, universal. I like everything about those closing lines—their unexpectedness, their vivid imagery (intimated earlier in the description of the space probe but here transformed), their rhythm, and that adverb “doubtfully” which calls attention to itself in an otherwise spare description and which perfectly captures the improbability and uncertainty of life on earth.
For the poem itself, see Issue 136 where it is published alongside “Closing Day,” an equally sad/funny poem by Timmers also on our shortlist. Below is her response to a question about “Philae Lands…” put by artist and OV adjudicator John Haney.
John Haney: This poem is by turns funny and poignant in its dealings with failure. Often our failures are as splendid as the aspirations which those failures thwart. A sense of hopelessness is grafted onto pretty serious technological triumphs in this poem—we’ve been able to place a tiny space probe on a ridiculously distant flying hunk of rock in space, and the rover can communicate all the way back to us, half-a-billion miles, if only to tell us how pissed off it is, that it’s slowly dying. And we can make a phone that fits in our pockets and we can hurtle through the sky 30,000 feet up at nearly Mach 1, but the damn phone doesn’t work from the damn plane. The poem beautifully straddles this line between the quotidian and the extraordinary. How does that become such a compelling strategy—is there something generative about the distance between those extremes? Almost like the leaps our minds must make sometimes that they can’t really handle?
Kate Timmers: I think there is something deeply compelling about that simultaneity of the quotidian and the extraordinary you’ve pointed to. I find myself interested in but uncomfortably ambivalent about the Rosetta mission, and space research in general. On the one hand, why not reach for the stars, embrace our hallmark human curiosity? On the other, our own small planet has so many practical problems that might be solved by the application of the money we spend on space research, and despite our relatively short mechanical forays away from Earth, it is the only place where we’re sure we can live. But of course we can’t and shouldn’t switch off our interest, and here we are.
In the poem, the speaker’s reaction to the comet landing is heavily coloured by her relationship’s failure; the mission can’t teach her anything new about loneliness. This is a dreary view of our place and state in the universe, to be sure, but then the average person is at rather a remove from Philae’s research objectives (even bearing in mind its over-earnest Twitter account). For a far better treatment of both the human condition and our imposition of ourselves onto space, run and grab a copy of Michel Faber’s wonderful and gutting novel, The Book of Strange New Things.