Bethany Mary on “On that one-way trip to Mars” by Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock’s debut poetry collection, “On that one-way trip to Mars,” is both warm and chilling, covering not only the expanse of the solar system but also of human emotions and experiences. It is a complete balance of history, science, medicine, and the nature of humanity. All of these areas of life affect each other.

Although the implications of her writing are broad, Chertock focuses on a very specific sort of life – life with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia. It is a mutation, a definition, a thing that does not have to be the only thing in a universe with so much else that is suffering and comforting.

There is no need to feel alienated or guilty for being born, and living, the wrong way, because there is no wrong way. Even on the same planet where all life arises from the same basics, a lot is left to individuality, and our language is not one that should make “wrong” synonymous with “different.”

Still, it can be painful to want what you cannot have, and want a life that you cannot live. Neck braces constrict like halos just a little too low. Spines curve so much it is hard to balance. How nice would it be to go to a planet where you can float, weightless, where you don’t have to feel heavy or pained just from existing?

The body remembers everything that happens to it. Remembers when Pluto was a planet, and when some random group of people suddenly decided it could not be one anymore. How many people rose in aggressive defense of that place that could not speak for itself, and how nice would it be for people to be just as protective of other people, close enough for them to touch?

Chertock writes,

1,400 years is a long time / for light to travel, / a long time for things / to go wrong, planets / to die, humans to wait / to see if they’re not alone.

Astronomical love poems pull people close the way that planets pull light. Chertock paints a fantasy of sitting on a lover’s shoulders to stick glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, bringing the outside world inside. There is so much going on outside, though, it is too much to internalize. Interspersed with love poems are equally resonant poems about periods and appreciating mothers, and several poems featuring David Bowie lyrics.

We orbit so many people in our lifetime, and are influenced by them, but who are we to them? Do any of them really understand us? In parallel universes, maybe we are more or less important, do things more or less right. Maybe it’s not only astronomers who have the ability to understand how stars shine and align.


Often, our own homes can feel unrecognizable.

When the fog comes / what was once our home / now is a spooky and dreaded graveyard. / And when you walk alone / you can feel the longing / and loneliness tugging at your sleeve, / and the dead whispering in your ear.

The lights that try to guide you home can be blinding. Even with the millions of other living breathing beings on the same ground as you, and the millions of once-living beings underneath, it is possible and okay to feel alone, for the world to feel small.

The Earth section of poems is interesting in its far-reaching, tables-have-turned perspective. Instead of wondering what it would be like if we were to reach other planets, the poem “Find us” postulates what might happen if lifeforms from other planets came to ours, long after no life is left. Whether we destroy ourselves or whether the end is out of our control is left unsaid. Our planet is just as strange as any other, and it is self-centered to believe that we are not sometimes alien.

Haven’t we learned already that we are not the center of the universe? This little poetry book reminds us of that. There is so much in the universe that we don’t understand, that is always changing anyway, and there are new things to discover that make every life worthwhile, no matter the struggle.

(Bottlecap Press, Poetry, 2016)


BETHANY MARY is a meditative tea snob studying gerontology in Minnesota. She was once the poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and now reads submissions for Spark: A Creative Anthology and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. As an asexual advocate for a sexual assault center and blogger for Resources for Ace Survivors, she focuses on boundaries and mental health in her own writing. Some of her work is out in the world, and she rants on Twitter @bethanylmary.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, prose, reviews, and interviews from marginalized creators.