Book Review: Cosmonauts

About two weeks ago some lovely folks sent me a request to review their new chapbook, Cosmonauts by William Winfield Wrightand I could hardly turn them down. Feel free to click on the links if you'd like more details on their magazines, A Few Lines Magazinetheir press, Wormwood Chapbooksor to get a copy of Cosmonauts.

Here’s the long and the short of it: there is something in Cosmonautsthat just plain works. I don’t know if it’s the overarching title poem, the humor in “32 Fucking Poems About Chess,” or the carefully reconstructed memories of a mother “In All My Mother’s Early Films,” but William Winfield Wright has made a truly engaging chapbook.

The strong graphic cover, all of the weighty history implied by the title, and the straightforward presentation and formatting set me up for one journey, yet the poet presented another path.

In seven succinct sections “Cosmonauts” is able to not only illustrate the Soviet rise and fall from the space race but also the singularly personal waxing and waning of interest and desire in such a venture. The first section, What Khrushchev Knows, states “It is we who hit the moon, we who smile
into their faces/with our practical Soviet teeth,/we who breed the cosmonauts who tumble/and then land on the practical Soviet ground” (1).  While the second section, Matisse’s Goldfish,opens with “It just happens like a car crash/or a bowl of goldfish./Everything floats. Everything’s equal,” (1). Everything is equal: hitting the moon and failing, floating and falling, crashing and goldfish. The transition from the pride in being those “who breed the cosmonauts,” the surety in the Soviet ground and the Soviet teeth, to the awe that, in space, none of it matters is done so subtly, so touchingly, that if you don’t read it twice you’ll miss it. Read it twice.

As the poem moves on readers are taken from the first attempts to fly, to space travel theory, to the devastating thought, in Angle of Reentry, there might not be anything else out there: “It’s joy and the immediate/recognition that there is/nothing like this/for us when we return” (4). The series finally ends with the realization that space travel, to the masses, is no longer amazing, no long unique.

I wondered, after finishing “Cosmonauts,” how Wright was going to follow this up. What poem could possibly contend with the idea that we are desensitized to, in my opinion, the most amazing achievement in modern history? I expected another punch, what I got was a lighthearted piece, “The Incontinent Burglar.” The rest of the book operates on these swings of tone, and it kept me interested throughout.

Other stand out poems include “In All My Mother’s Early Films” where the speaker, in still frame kind of way, details his mothers signature moment on film. With clarity the speaker says “already she’s sure of the light,/maybe buttoning her coat or putting on a scarf,/and even as she moves she looks/down at her hands/and then up to the nearest horizon” (8). The big names that are mentioned and the period references don’t matter here, it is the loving way that the speaker explains the mother’s actions as only someone who truly cared could. The shift found in this poem, from wide-angle observations to the individual experience, is present in many poems and the collection’s overall construction.

“32 Fucking Poems About Chess,” my favorite poem in the book, spins on a similar axis. It’s more than a speaker frustrated about a series of chess matches, and chess players, and so much fucking chess. The lines “Then I saw it all laid out,/the whole thing, like a dance,/twenty moves to mate,/and I started laughing” appear to talk about a personal revelation and not just a perfect chess match (15). Like “Cosmonauts” and “In All My Mother’s Early Films,” Wright gently pushes readers to see, to re-see, and then to rethink what we have seen.

The final poem, “Invented Calculus,” which is one of two poems in conversation with each other, has the perfect line to sum up Cosmonauts: “This is almost enough, this collection of things/you will or won’t remember for letters/or next time we meet” (18). Not every image is a jump out, love it forever, moment, but there is more than enough here to make this book well worth one read, if not two. I’d recommend two reads.

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