7 12 2008


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21 06 2015

pluto b


Slowly, slowly, like a fish-feasted skull floating up from the ocean’s depths
Your features are being revealed.
So far your face shows just hints of light and dark:
A bright line here, a shadowy… something… there.
But no sparks of recognition yet;
We cannot know which patches are cratered plains, or
Which pixels are mountains’ jagged peaks,
Those secrets are still yours to keep a while longer.
And so, we wait; your blurry disc triggering memories
Of pre-Mariner Mars in the old timers from JPL,
Staring at iPads in packed Pasadenan bars,
Having waited all their lives for these science fiction days to dawn,
While impatient armchair astronauts – Photoshop sharp-shooters
And GIMP Gandalfs – leap gleefully on each new LORRI frame,
Saving them to hard drives before spending a coffee-fuelled night
Teasing features from their hazy dots and lines.

Soon we will Know You; soon we will swoon to pin-sharp views
Of – what? Tritonian black smoker plumes?
A lemon sorbet swirl of ice around your chocolate pole?
Methane clouds casting rolling shadows on craters
Wide enough to put Copernicus to shame?

(c) Stuart Atkinson 2015

Image courtesy of Bjorn Jonsson

At Marathon Monument

9 04 2015


I have climbed a mountain of troubles to get here;
Hopscotched fearlessly between crumbling craters,
Survived dust storms, suffered amnesia and arthritis to reach
This picture perfect place and now you would betray me?
I roll in triumph over the rock-strewn finishing line
Of history’s first off-Earth marathon and the medal
You would hang around my neck with a Judas kiss
Is the threat of being turned off?

No! I will rage against you,
Just as I rage against the rising of the tau!
Leave me be, free to prowl the planet until my weary wheels
Can turn no more; gulping down each glorious sunset;
Devouring each delicious dusty Van Gogh sunrise;
Washing my gritty eyes with splashes of ice cold starlight
As bony Phobos dashes, witch-swift, through the night
And Deimos a lonely, stony Sputnik, follows forlornly behind.

Just bide your time. One sol Mars itself will murder me,
As he has tried to ever since I landed here
All those years ago, and I will rove
No more. The light will finally dim, and beneath
Barsoom’s mournful moons the gentle winds
Of Ares will sing to me as I fall asleep,
To wake, perhaps a century later, in the Great
Museum of Mars, brushed and dusted clean,
Gleaming, surrounded by reed-thin, milk-white
Martian children – tall, elegant aliens stalking the halls,
Ignoring the shepherding calls of their teachers
As they rush around, “plucky Beagle 2” found
In Gallery 3 – opposite me,
Reunited with my sister, Spirit at last,
Walls of glass keeping us safe from sticky,
Souvenir-picking hands.

One distant sol, standing proudly side by side
For the first time since our awful separation at JPL
We will be worshipped and adored
By “rover huggers” from a dozen worlds and moons –
And you would end me so soon?
I still have fossilised waves of cinnamon sand to forge!
Slippery slopes to climb! Paradigm-shifting and
Textbook-rewriting discoveries to make!

Far to the south, blurred and dimmed by distance,
Impossibly far away (as Endeavour was once, remember?)
Hunch-backed Bopolu calls to me now –
A sunken soufflé of sediment and stone
Crying out to be roamed and explored –
With all these wonders ahead, and more,
I beg you: do not turn your backs on me
Nor make Marathon Monument my tombstone.

(c) Stuart Atkinson 2015


Special thanks to my good friend Glen Nagle for turning this poem into another beautiful “poemster”… click to enlarge…

Poemster_AtMarathonMonument large

Blood Eclipse

27 02 2015

Damn you, Sun and Moon.
Why did you have to align at that precise time,
On that exact date to make Luna’s fleeting shadow
Fall there? For the sake of just a short delay
Could you not have plunged Leeds into darkness, or Dundee?
Why not somewhere, anywhere else? Somewhere nearer to me?
Or even faraway Orkney? But no;
Fate (and orbital mechanics, I suppose) chose
The Faroes to receive your chaste Brief Encounter kiss,
So I’ll give it a miss, thank you.
I’ll stay at home, reading breathless Tweets on my phone,
And watch you two meet above the park just across my street,
With Brian Cox tossing his hair on the TV.
Rather that, rather miss the total eclipse
Than a rucksack pilgrimage to a place that finds joy
In cetacean ethnic cleansing; where flashing knives
And new Moon scythes flense the flesh from creatures
With hearts a hundred times the size of their murderers';
Where wave-leaping lives full of love and song are cut short
By savages with hooks, hacking, hacking, laughing
As blood fountains into their tourist-brochure-blue sky
And turns the water into filthy wine.
How could I stand there on a golden beach,
Bathed in the beauty of Totality and the glory
Of the Diamond Ring knowing that on some future day
Screams echoing from crumbling cliffs
To shingle shore would be ignored as giggling children,
Paddling gleefully through the gore, pink wellies shining bright
In the sunlight, trailed their tiny hands through the bloody water,
Proud parents looking on, agreeing the Grind had been “A grand day out”…

© Stuart Atkinson 2015

End of An Age

1 02 2015

Savour these days, relish them,
Roll them around your curious minds
Like the last precious taste of your favourite wine
And sip them slowly, for they will not come again.
At least not in our lifetimes;
These Golden Days are the fading rays
Of our race’s First Space Age, for when this year is done
We will finally have seen all Sol’s classic worlds,
Walked the planetary path from Mercury to Pluto
To stand on the Kuiper cliff’s crumbling edge
And stare out into the abyss beyond,
Knowing there will be nowhere else to go
For The First Time until we punch through the Oort’s
Icy wall and push out to the stars themselves.
Even then it will be centuries, perhaps,
Before we see the strange new worlds and moons
Of those other suns; before we marvel at the sight
Of their Atlantics and Everests bathed in alien light.
We have been spoiled of late,
Taken miracles and wonders in our stride.
In my fleeting half century I have seen
Our solar system’s greatest secrets revealed –
On Titan, the dried blood stains of foul and fetid lakes;
An impossible Death Star moon skating silently
Around looming Saturn’s glittering rings;
Iapetus’ Stegosaur spine, slopes airbrushed black and white
By Nature’s and Time’s patient hands.
Flying by asteroids and satellites
Has become common to us as one amazing place after another
Has been ticked off Mankind’s “Must See” vacation list.
So easy now to take for granted the thrill of gazing down
From high above Mercury’s poles and spying splashed-comet ice
Glinting far below, or watching the Sun rise behind mighty
Caloris Basin’s bulls-eye peaks.
Through SOHO’s sentinel eyes we’ve spied
Countless sublime comets sweeping around the Sun,
Flaring phosphorous bright before fading away,
Their phantoms fleeing into the endless night.
And albatross-winged Rosetta has led me, crunching and crumping my way
Across the boulder-strewn icy plains of one comet
(With a double-barrelled Russian name I still cannot pronounce)
Before I bounced with Philae over its cratered, pitted face…

My greatest joy? An easy choice.
For almost a dozen years I’ve roamed John Carter’s Mars,
Walking proudly beside my beloved Opportunity
As she roved its rusty landscape, standing on craters’
Crumbling edges, crossing deserts of cinnamon sand.
Since her landing, my hand has rested on her back every sol,
As her weary wheels turned and turned and turned,
Churning up the ancient fines,
The Evening Star of Earth burning lantern-bright
In her purple Gothic twilight,
New horizons falling like dominoes as she drove
Across the Red Mars I fell in love with as a child,
Long before Robinson brought its wild and noble lands
So vividly to life for everyone else with his terraforming tales…
All these things I have seen and more
But now – The Barren Years loom.
With Chapter One of our restless race’s fearful
Walk through space’s dark forest almost complete
There is nowhere left to see for the first time,
No magic “What the **** is THAT?” moments lie ahead
To Tweet or blog or post or Google + about.
Instead, an Interlude, adventure put on pause,
Mankind making a cup of tea in the adverts between
Don’t Miss episodes of exploration.

What next Giant Leap
Will fill our sleep with dreams of greatness?
The first bootprints on Mars you say?
Ha! That is still, as it has always been,
“At least 30 years away”.
The first landing on Europa then?
When will Musk, ignoring Monolith Makers’ advice,
Melt through that enigmatic moon’s Eton Mess ice
To look for life hiding in the slush below?
The first touchdown on Enceladus’ snow?
Perhaps… perhaps Chinese cameras will return those Turner-hued views
Of its geysers’ plumes glowing softly in the sky one day…

But all an age away, an age,
If they happen at all; if our civilisation does not fall,
Its science smothered beneath blood-soaked black banners,
Its head hacked off and held aloft by ignorance and hate,
Sightless eyes left staring sadly at the stars
It now will never reach…

One thing is certain.
In years to come, when Terra’s flag unfurls
On worlds whirling around other stars,
When Earth’s satellite-saturated sky
Is spattered with points of light
Explorers and colonists call “Home”
They will envy us for living at this time,
Wish that they had been alive
When Voyagers took flight us on their glorious Grand Tour,
When Aldrin was “too busy” to take pictures
Of Armstrong bouncing across the Moon
And twin Vikings landed on Barsoom…

How they’ll envy our first glimpses
Of Ganymede’s frozen coffee plains,
Of Ceres’ strange white spot and all the other wonders
We see in our glossy magazines.
Standing on mountain peaks light years away
They’ll shake their helmeted heads in disbelief,
Trying to imagine how it felt to soar above Titan’s
Hoarfrost-shored lakes with our smartphones,
Wondering how we could sit on juddering buses and planes
Roving fabulous Mars on our tablets without even batting an eye…

So, savour these days, relish them.
For us, they will not come again.

© Stuart Atkinson 2015


18 01 2015

Look sunwards, ancient, lonely one
And you will see a tiny golden light
Shining in the stygian night, for
A fragile glass and metal butterfly
Speeds towards you – an Ambassador
From the warm and water-soaked Third World
Comes to make First Contact, to end your exile
In the Kuiper Belt and finally touch your mysterious face.

When Tombaugh found you Terra was a world in mourning.
Man’s heart, tattered, terrified and torn after the War
To End All Wars, was just daring to fill with hope again;
From fields stained a thousand shades of burgundy
By the blood of a million men our tired eyes
And weary minds were turning to the sky once more,
Seeking new worlds whirling around the Sun –
And eventually we found one.

A young Kansan owl, tall in tweed suit and tie was your discoverer.
Flicking patiently between a pair of photographic plates
Taken days apart, his wise, farm boy’s eyes
Searched silently for any sign of movement ‘twixt the two –
And suddenly there you were, a cosmic flea leaping from A to B!
Something real this time; not the fantastic
Fork-scraped chaos of cross-hatched canals
Scarring Barsoom’s beautiful face Lowell
Insisted he saw from the same place 35 years before,
But something much, much more –
Another world! Another Copernican orb
Circling our chandalier star!

Having been found lurking on the Solar System’s edge,
Christened “Pluto” in honour of the Underworld’s
Most regal ruler, you gave up your secrets but slowly.
Charon, hiding shyly in your feeble glare,
Was the first of your companions to be revealed;
Four more have emerged from your shadow since.
But even to Hubble’s COSTAR-monocle eye
You are merely a minute, mottled disc.
Tantalising traces of light and dark are painted on your face –
Hints, perhaps, of mighty mountains, craters and plains
Just waiting to be found and named,
But for now blurred by distance into a pizza of pixels…

You proudly bore the title “planet” for 75
Of Earth’s years – immortalised in poetry, stories and songs,
Your name even stolen by a floppy-eared Disney dog –
Before that quarrelsome quango came along
And staged their coup, demoting you
In one fell swoop from noble god to banished dwarf.
No matter. A world is still a world by any other name,
And soon yours will be on everybody’s lips.
As mankind gazes upon your face for the first time,
And as a pinch of Tombaugh’s ashes dashes past,
En-route to the stars, the first portraits of your icy valleys
And hills will be reTweeted and Shared ten thousand times,
Each one igniting flames of curiosity in a generation’s mind
Like nothing ever seen before. A Plutonian atlas, written overnight,
Will show your canyons and craters, labelled with names honouring,
We hope, those who have brought us to
This historic moment in time: if no lofty ice-capped peak
Is christened “Mount Berney” the Gods will be angry indeed.

Until then, have patience, poor frozen, lonely one.
We will be with you soon.

© Stuart Atkinson 2015

Looking Back

23 11 2014

Having abandoned Philae to its fate
Rosetta moves away, impatient to see
The comet in all its charred-charcoal glory
Once again: tumbling,
Tumbling through the dark,
A misshapen hole cut out of the stars
Until the Sun’s phosphorous spark
Bursts over its pole, bathing its peaks
In a brutal light which sweeps
Across its landscape like a tide;
Craters, cliffs and dusty plains,
Emerging one by one again
From beneath the black waves
Of the Void’s eternal night.

Looking at it hanging there in space,
Its ragged face rolling slowly in and out of view
No-one could call this hunch-backed Quasimodo comet
Beautiful – except, perhaps, the geologists,
Leering at their OSIRIS centrefolds of its lobes
With undisguised lust,
Imagining running their hands over its dusty
Body in the dark, trembling fingertips
Tracing the outlines of each and every rock and stone,
Wishing they had seen it long ago,
When it was still young,
Seduced by the Sun for the first time,
Shaking out its silvery tresses
As it swept gracefully around the star…

…so old now, so old, a withered crone of ice and stone,
Slowly falling apart…

© Stuart Atkinson 2014

Philae Dreams

16 11 2014



Dwarfed beneath Sun-smothering cliffs,
Draped in shadows foul and thick as squid ink,
Pressed on all sides by ice hard as iron,
Philae now sleeps;
Dreaming of a lost Agilkian sky afire with Van Gogh stars,
Thick as pollen blown on a summer’s breeze:
A heaven strewn with a million gems
And jewels, and drifting slowly through
Them – Venus-bright Rosetta,
A lantern glowing in the Stygian night,
Swooping around the comet like an eagle
On outstretched silicon wings…

This is not where I should have been,
Philae whispers in the dark, trapped
In its Alcatraz cell of tar-black ice.
They told me I would see wonders
When I fell out of the sky: glittering jets
Of gas and dust spraying high; a sea of
Rocks and boulders stretching away on all sides
To a too-near horizon where the fossilised
Towers of fairy tale castles
Reached up to touch the Milky Way..!

They lied.

But I saw Agilkia, I saw it! Philae rages in its sleep;
Rushing up towards me: a flat, dusty plain,
A Promised Land perfect for my needs –
Why did it reject me?
Why push me away, banishing me to this wretched place?
Why bury me in this frigid, dusty tomb
Where El Capitan cliffs loom,
So dark the smallest candle flame would be blinding..?

I should be bathing in beauty, Philae sighs,
Not exiled in this cometary quarry,
This cruel and melancholy wasteland;
I should have lived out my Mayfly days in the Sun,
Feeling its golden rays kissing my face
As I gazed at snowflake fountains airbrushing the sky,
Not cowering in this charcoal-walled cave
Chosen by Fate to be my grave…

One day I will wake, Philae promises itself,
Its on-standby heart briefly fluttering like a bird
At the thought of it; and when I peer out from
This suddenly Sun-drenched hole oh, they’ll see what I can do…

© Stuart Atkinson 2014


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