Aly Pierce’s poetry collection, The Visible Planets, is a work of universal appeal (bad pun absolutely intended). Most people can probably relate to speculation about our place in the world and the cryptic bigger picture outside of our Earth. While many poets focus on the grounding images of humanity in relation to nature, full of forests and oceans, Pierce casts us away to a wide starry sea and takes us back to the basics of our very atoms. Simultaneously a celebration of the wonders of space and a meditation on the death of a sister, these poems can help humans learn more about ourselves through the universe, and perhaps vice versa.
Pierce compares the progression of human years to the life stages of a star, from shimmering inception to supernova and black hole. “I should probably start viewing myself / as the 90% dark matter that I am,” she writes. She draws comfort from astrophysics and thermodynamics, maintaining that even if some specifics are incomprehensible, we can still estimate our importance and relation to space in a more abstract, unquantifiable sense. No clear map marks the spot of wherever we’re trying to go, and sometimes NASA’s explanations mean nothing; life is a series of spontaneous processes that we do not fully understand or predict, but we move ever forward.
There will likely always be things that are unknowable, but Pierce states, “there are no freak / accidents, no sickness that doesn’t add up / if you understand enough math.” Is each moment and movement of our life predetermined, like the fated entwinement of binary stars? Can we couple our loved ones into that same bond and figure out who will die first? If it is possible to calculate how close we can get to a planet before the force of gravity would destroy us, perhaps we can determine with cold precision how close we can get to another person before the weight of love or loss would destroy us.
“I should probably start viewing myself / as the 90% dark matter that I am”
A brief introductory list about the cosmic characters or subjects in this collection provides the necessary insights on the stars we will come to care for. Each planet and moon possesses a certain personality or vibe to stand out from the rest, and foreshadows some of the pairings of the poems to follow. There is also a glossary of the true meanings of the mathematical symbols at the end, which can help readers understand some of the creative liberties taken with these symbols throughout the work. This setup of personification from start to finish highlights the dual sides of a scientific mind, both logical and flexible, able to perceive both what is evident and what is not.
Planets and moons are portrayed as galvanizing people at parties with shocking hookups. Moons mourn their positions as the “occasional lover” or a number in a line of many who serve the same purpose. Jupiter is like a ripped bodybuilder who is used to getting what he wants, Neptune lives sadly in her parents’ basement, Mars and Phobos get together despite wanting different things; our dear celestial bodies become reminiscent of trashy high schoolers doing drugs, eating freezer meals, and sneaking around. We see in our stars the generic sloppy fumblings of first loves or mistakes, the bitterness after the breakup, and the morose conflict of relentlessly orbiting back around to what used to be.
We continuously circle back to a sister’s death like a neverending eclipse, watching for the tiny pins of light reacting in the darkness. How can you pinpoint the moment when things begin to end? Pierce muses, “there was a time / that was the last time. did they know it?” We are witness to the almost radioactive death of a human star, the light of someone’s life. We are a listener to the discussions of chemotherapy and a brain bleed, and a lesson on mathematical constants defined in relation to the poet’s fluctuating life.
“there are no freak / accidents, no sickness that doesn’t add up / if you understand enough math.”
Formulas measure life’s meaning and a despairing count of grief-filled days and cigarettes. They are made up of neat letters that can seem so straightforward and unquestionable, but the variables can be elusive and undefinable, emblematic of something with an even more confounding mystery. The answer never seems farther than when it appears to be right there.
In a world where the passage of time has such a grand scale, it can be astounding, “the speed at which we are leaving each other.” We spend our short years getting close and then fluttering away at the telltale signs of death; we cannot really spare ourselves pain because our sensitive hearts naturally pull us back in. Joy and tragedy propel us in an inescapable hand-in-hand trajectory, bounding back to those we love even during and after death. This is a human’s devastating yet gratifying orbit. We should treasure every revolution around the sun. Through eyes as admiring as the Hubble’s lens, perhaps we can see beauty all throughout our universe.
Keep up with Aly Pierce on Twitter and Instagram @instantweekend.
(Game Over Books, Poetry, 2020)
BETHANY MARY has studied both health science and creative writing, and currently works as a medical scribe in Alabama. She was once the poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and read submissions for Spark: A Creative Anthology and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. She rants and shares photos of her ragdoll cats on Twitter @bethanylmary.