Poem of the Week | September 05, 2022

This week’s Poem of the Week is “Song for Voyagers” by Ryler Dustin.

Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Ryler Dustin has represented Seattle on the final stage of the Individual World Poetry Slam. His work appears in outlets like American Life in Poetry, Gulf Coast, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. This poem is from his forthcoming chapbook, Something Bright, available for preorder from Green Linden Press.

Song for Voyagers

              “You, the farthest objects we have ever touched, now venture beyond that
              place where the sun’s wind gives way…”

                           Ann Druyan

After school, I’d sit where these shops gave way
to water and woods, gripping a sci-fi book

from the free box outside Henderson’s,
watching sun recede in passing clouds

then swell until the bay glowed like green glass.
No one noticed me on the abandoned trestle

that ran along the pulp mill’s graffitied walls
and firs that sank soundlessly into shade.

If someone came — the drunk lady, the two sisters
picking blackberries, the boys on bikes with greasy hair —

I kept quiet except to share what my grandmother knew,
that a woman planted the berries as she train-hopped west.

I stayed as long as the light lasted, reading novels
set among alien suns and the windless dark between galaxies,

past planets that glowed like the bay’s far freighters —
redshifted or neon green — my pages dog-eared

by someone else. Wheel of Winds, Planet of Adventure:
one person writes a story, another gives it away

and a boy who finds it in the bottom of a box
reads it aloud, walking home in his corduroy coat,

the first snow falling like the passage of stars —
like photos from the spacecraft on the news that year,

a probe that rushed past Pluto, clutching a phonograph
of humpbacks, human songs, infant heartbeats

and our planet’s fragile, shifting weather —
so wind and whales and Chuck Berry would be found

by beings unfathomably far away, long after
we had vanished, or grown
                                          into something unimaginable.

Author’s Note

I’ve long been obsessed with the golden records, a pair of phonographs NASA affixed to Voyagers I and II in the hope of giving aliens an audio sample of Earth. It especially fascinates me that the human brainwaves included on these records, supposedly a representation of “baseline” brain function, actually represent a highly irregular state. They were the brainwaves of Ann Druyan, who’d just fallen in love with Carl Sagan as they worked together on the golden record project.

The problem with writing a poem about an astonishing story like this is that, so often, the poem fails to add anything new. It serves essentially as a Wikipedia entry. And yet the story of the golden record kept haunting my poems, and my ideas about poetry. It speaks to the inherent hopefulness of writing a poem — of crafting a tiny message to reach out against all odds. Sometimes this means constructing new rules, a new matrix of meaning that transcends ordinary language (for example, etchings on the golden record explain what a record player is, how to play a record, etc.).

I wrote “Song for Voyagers” during a trip to my hometown, where I’d spent much of my early boyhood in the care of my grandmother, roaming alone, often feeling like an alien myself. Squinting back at the boy I’d been, I felt him squinting out at me, too. In the end, that’s the part of the golden record that found its way into this poem: the revelation that to peer across vast distance is also to peer through time, that our messages to one another are also time capsules. If we survive our own destructive habits, we’ll eventually change and evolve into something else. Maybe it’s us who will find the golden record someday, a gift from who we used to be.