A number of poems in McKendrick’s recent collection, Out There, are meditative lyrics that achieve a kind of Frostian wisdom. ‘A Safe Distance’, for instance, considers, with common-sense reasoning, the idea that physical distance is the source of beauty and ‘The Gate’, a plainspoken reflection on a pastoral boundary, is something like a tribute poem to ‘Mending Wall’. The voice of the opening and title poem of the collection, which introduces the meditative mood, is less Frostian, but more late Auden. Its vernacular phrasing and worldly-wise approach evokes – to my ear at least – Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, which reflects, with congruous dispassion, on unknowing and indifference towards suffering. The elements of wry bathos in both poems impart an impression of wisdom whilst admitting an elegiac note.
A more unlikely parallel: Stewart Lee’s sketch in which he gets us to imagine that we have just returned from space. Your friend Ian rings you up, asks perfunctorily about your expedition as if you’ve just returned from a weekend in Wales (‘Hello? You back from space then?’) and then invites you to join him and others at the Multiplex to watch the new Schwarzenegger film Jingle All the Way; to which you reply ‘No, because I’ve walked in space… seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest poorly conceived flimsy comedy vehicle holds few thrills for me now’. The sublime immensity of space throws into relief the banality of daily life. In ‘Out There’, quotidian things – a dog’s bark, a child’s cry – are hallucinated by an earthsick cosmonaut ‘halfway to the moon’. Yet Lee’s sketch and ‘Out There’ both insist that the space-traveller must approach Earth with new eyes, and both writers tackle perhaps the profoundest of subjects with a good dose of sardonic humour. McKendrick’s second quatrain moves from elegiac lyricism – ‘Nostalgia for earth…’ – to a skit-like retelling of a funny incident which crystallises the point of earthsickness: the punchline, ‘For a walk’, is set off with a comic’s precision. (The cosmonaut’s nonchalant response also evokes the last words of Captain Oates during Scott’s polar expedition: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’.) For both comedian and poet, the dark humour is a stay, a method of reconciliation or control.
The voice is more interesting than the argument in ‘Out There’ (which is roundly settled at the end of the first quatrain). What interests the poet here is not cosmic nothingness per se (the objective or scientific perspective) but how we might apprehend it. This is conveyed through telling shifts, or equivocations, in register, tone and mood. (Interviewed by the Oxonian Review, the poet comments on how, within a poem, ‘contradictory emotions, humour and sorrow, can lie very close to one another with inappropriate rapidity. I’ve always liked the way poems, or rather language itself, can remain mobile, can resist a fixity of tone’.) The title could be read in various ways – is it colloquial, presumptuous, diffident, unsure? ‘Out there’ is a casual, almost dismissive, way to refer to the universe, and in making Earth ‘here’ (the place on which ‘there’ is predicated) it privileges the planet. On the other hand, the title’s vagueness also intimates our incomplete knowledge of the universe; it’s a murky phrase, not saying much more than something is elsewhere. A note of incredulity is heard too if the title is read in the sense of ‘that’s really out there’: an expression of bewildered amazement.
A combination of voices and attitudes is also discernible in the first quatrain, in which agnosticism about the origin of space is overridden in favour of a decisive conclusion: there must be ‘nothing’ because it’s highly unlikely that there is ‘something’. Why this forthright assertion of nothingness? Perhaps due to the fact that, as the second poem in the collection recognises, we have difficulty swallowing the concept. Anselm of Canterbury asserted that ‘nothing is something, since no one can deny that “nothing” is a noun’, but to apply another of McKendrick’s poems from this collection, ‘On Nothing’, this is just language ‘rushing in / to fill what makes the intellect recoil[.] // It’s us not nature that abhors a vacuum’.
An academic or intellectual coming-to-terms with nothingness is easier than expected. But such deadpan acceptance is checked by the experience of those who have most keenly felt the nothingness out there: ‘Nostalgia for the earth and its atmosphere / weakens the flesh and bones of cosmonauts’. To get a sense of that nostalgia you could turn to the Pale Blue Dot photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990, from a distance of 3.7 billion miles – admittedly a lot further than any human could travel. Here, Earth appears as a tiny, easily overlooked, blue speck within the vast blackness of space. Sharing the voyager’s perspective, you get a feeling of unthinkable loneliness at the thought of being so cut off from Earth. Astronauts (or cosmonauts to use the Soviet term) – alien looking figures in their space suits, who survive outside the Earth’s atmosphere – encourage futuristic fantasies. They appear to straddle the border of human and post-human and point towards the possibility of colonisation of other planets (a very convenient development as things stand). But it takes more than a state-of-the-art space suit to outstrip the human. The bodies of astronauts, McKendrick reminds us, are weakened by the zero gravity of space.
Scientific advances have tended to demote Earth and humanity from the standing afforded them in religious scripture, and have seemingly pushed God out of the picture. Biblical geocentricism and a literal account of Genesis were dealt fatal blows by Galileo and Darwin respectively. The Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe and what is called the ‘fine-tuning’ of fundamental physical constants for life have, however, given theists a ground for recovery. Scholars of faith, and the so-called New Atheists – fronted by the famously tactful Dawkins – have in recent years been fighting out the issue of God’s (ir)relevancy to our cosmological picture in a series of debates, often as excruciating as they are insightful.
In ‘Out There’ McKendrick appears to enter the debate on the atheistic side, yet without the stridency which is seen as characteristic of the New Atheists. The assertion of nothingness from a position of scientific indeterminacy in the opening quatrain, as self-assured as it seems, is really more the case of a man facing an unpalatable truth, refusing to ignore what’s apparent in favour of a happier but unlikelier possibility. In the final lines, beginning with the discreet volta ‘What once had been’, a less defensive, more elegiac voice is heard, as the speaker takes account of the metaphysical loss that has come with the forays into space: ‘where heaven was, is barren beyond imagining’. Here is a negative magnitude that reason will never quite get its head around. The return to Earth is more of a meek retreat, and the re-imagining of it as ‘paradise’ is a far cry from Stevens’s secular sanctification of Earth in ‘Sunday Morning’ which muses that religious eschatology alienates us from the present world and that the real experiences of Earth supersede the promises of heaven:
[…] And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.
The notion of Earth as paradise in ‘Sunday Morning’ is celebratory and fulfilling; in ‘Out There’ it is bathetic and ironic. A sense of disquiet is communicated by the phrasing of the largely monosyllabic last two lines: ‘and never so keenly as from out there can / the lost feel earth’s the only paradise’. (The metrical heaviness of the final line is all the more striking for the dactyls of the penultimate line: ‘and never so keenly as from out there can’). If, earlier, abstract reasoning was put in tension with emotional response, the scientific in tension with the human, these are combined in the final verb ‘feel’ which encompasses empirical discovery and subjective impression.
The redefinition of cosmonauts as ‘the lost’ is surprising. It could be a small dig at the hubris involved in space travel; a technical point that one is inevitably lost in the barrenness of space; or a reference to the fact that they are lost to us on Earth. But perhaps this is a mis-reading: strictly following the grammatical sense, the subject of the sentence (‘the lost’) refers not only to the astronauts (those who have most keenly felt that ‘earth’s the only paradise’), but to the whole of humanity. Lost, not as in the Abrahamic tradition, because we have been exiled from heaven, but because the idea of heaven has left us (both cases are a consequence of knowledge in one form or another). What ‘redemption’ there is from this condition, is found in accepting that earth is the ‘only’ – more in the sense of ‘singular’, rather than ‘authentic’ – paradise. ‘Out There’, then, is a kind of antistrophe to the collection’s epigraph: Dante’s coolly dismissive view of earth from the felicitous vantage point of the Christian heaven – ‘this little patch of earth that makes us all so fierce’.
If space begins at an indefinite zone
where the chance of two gas molecules colliding
is rarer than a green dog or a blue moon
then that’s as near as we can get to nothing.
Nostalgia for the earth and its atmosphere
weakens the flesh and bones of cosmonauts.
One woke to find his crewmate in a space suit
and asked where he was going. For a walk.
He had to sleep between him and the air-lock.
Another heard a dog bark and a child cry
halfway to the moon. What once had been
where heaven was, is barren beyond imagining,
and never so keenly as from out there can
the lost feel earth’s the only paradise.
From Out There (Faber, 2012). Reproduced with permission of the author.