17
Jul
22

On Diane Thiel’s Questions From Outer Space

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Diane Thiel -- Questions from Outer SpaceDiane Thiel is the author of eleven books of poetry, nonfiction, and creative writing pedagogy, and Questions from Outer Space (Red Hen Press, 2022) is her third collection of poems. I purchased this book when I was visiting Asheville, North Carolina, and wandering around a bookstore. I liked the title as I assumed it would reveal poems about astronomy, cosmology, astrophysics, etc., which are topics I enjoy. I read a few poems, and it appeared my assumptions were correct. When I eventually sat down with the book, I found more interesting topics. Questions from Outer Space has four sections, and each section behaves a bit differently, but all seem to be revolving around the idea of the last lines of the last poem in the book “Time in the Wilderness”:

not to miss the trees
for the theory of the forest,

turning an old saying
around a child’s observation,

the simplest question
opening the world again.

It is the final line, really, that this collection of poems achieves. More specifically, a major theme of this book is meaning making, such as making meaning on this small planet that is remote from other life forms, meaning making as a child and a family, and meaning making while living during a pandemic and ever catastrophic and self-destructive world.

One way section “I: Questions of Time and Direction” attempts meaning making is through Martian poetry. For instance, “The Factory (Questions from Outer Space)” examines the harmful effects of the internet, such as the lack of personalism or abundance of people being impersonal. (The poem also brushes up against the issues of free speech and pollution.) In observing human life like a Martian might, it “perform[s] the service of reminding poets that part of their job was to look afresh at what was in front of them” (Paterson, 160), and in turn the reader must reexamine what they experienced and, as a result, create new meaning in a seemingly declining planet of humans.

Section “II: Notice from Another Dimension” turns, for the most part, to domestic issues with an underlying theme of choosing. This section also implements form poems, such as: a tritina (A condensed sestina consisting of three tercets and a one-line envoy. The teleutons are repeated in each stanza ABC, CAB, BCA, and the final line contains A, B, and C.) that appears in “Tritina in the Time of the Machine”; a poem where the line on the left side of the page mirror the words on the right side of the page in “In the Mirror”; and a sestina in “Changing Reality.” In “Tritina in the Time of the Machine,” Thiel treats the coronavirus particle as if it were a machine trying to replicate itself and survive and creating its “meaning of alive.” In doing so, the poem overlaps the anxiety of the virus with the anxiety of technology in our lives and how both seem to be a on a path of unstoppable growth.

Section “III: The Farthest Side,” which also has formal poems, such as a pantoum, villanelle, and haiku, turns, for the most part, to issues of family and children, memory, and meaning making. For example, the “Library of Veria, Greece” is about Syrian children, who the speaker is teaching how “to think about the future and the past.” To do so, they draw maps and “some had the past falling off the page” as if it had fallen off the edge of the flat earth into “monsters circling beneath.” It is a past they choose to forget or repress. They then turn to drawing a future hopeful place with the “possibilities in their hands.” Thus, there is an underlying idea of how art can create meaning and hope for those who need it, as the Syrian children did.

Section “IV: Time in the Wilderness” focuses, for the most part, on children, aliens, and meaning making. “Living with Aliens” begins mysteriously with aliens somehow inhabiting people until the aliens suddenly reveal themselves. The people in turn become submissive to the aliens. (It feels almost like Star Trek’s Borg species.) The aliens quickly evolve as a baby might by “star[ing] at their own hands” and “acquir[ing] the sense of object permanence.” The aliens then plan to take over the world, and they do so by asking questions that undermine humans’ everyday assumptions until one dawn the people “step . . . / on an unrecognizable planet.” So, it is questions, even the simplest ones, that help create new meanings and understandings.

While the book title is Questions from Outer Space, there are questions right here on Earth that need asking, especially as we come out of the pandemic and with our new lens on life from the James Webb Space Telescope. Diane Thiel, in the end, provides hope.//

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Thiel, Diane. Questions from Outer Space. Red Hen Press, 2022.

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Works Cited

Paterson, Don. Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre. Faber & Faber, 2018.

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