I’ve always been fascinated by “What if” questions. In fact, when I was a kid I had a whole book of “What if” questions called If: Questions for the Game of Life, and I loved reading it and quizzing my whole family about things like, “If you had the power to hypnotize anyone for a day, who would you pick and what would you have them do?”
In my writing, I like to ask “what if” questions in love poems of possibility and imagination. My chapbook Alternates, for instance, is set in a series of parallel universes, and my first book, Annotated Glass, builds physical wonderlands out of dreamlike grief.
My second book, Copper Mother, forthcoming from Switchback Books this winter, approaches the love poem of possibility with NASA’s 1977 Voyager probes as its inspiration. These probes were the first spacecraft to explore the outer planets of the solar system and have since become the first human-made objects to ever leave our solar system and enter interstellar space. They’ve traveled farther away from our planet than anything in human history, and they’re still out there, getting farther and farther away from us every second. Included on board the Voyager probes was an incredible artifact of human history—a Golden Record containing a kind of time capsule or snapshot of our species in the form of pictures, music, spoken language greetings, and sounds of Earth.
Copper Mother imagines what would happen if an intelligent extraterrestrial society found the Golden Record and decided to visit Earth. In the book, the guide who leads Our Friends (the aliens) around Earth is a woman in her 60’s named Jane, and during the course of their visit, Our Friends use a form of time travel technology to bring Jane’s 20-something-year-old self, who I call Then-Jane, back to meet her.
Jane’s story came out of a conversation I was having one day with a friend of mine. As she was recalling a memory from a time when she was 40 years younger, my friend suddenly stopped and said: “Wow—that was a totally different person.” This fascinated me, and resulted in the book and in this poem, “Jane and Then-Jane speak of their beloved.”
This poem imagines what would happen if your past self emerged and you could speak with her face to face. There might be an incredible, comforting intimacy about it, but at the same time, it might also feel suffocating or even disturbing. What if, for instance, your past self asked you about a past lover—a lover you no longer loved, or who stopped loving you? What if that lover were gone, or dead? Your past self would have so many questions, and what would you say to her—to you?
In this poem, Then-Jane is demanding answers from Jane about their beloved’s death, but Jane doesn’t want to give her those answers. Is it because she wants to protect Then-Jane, or because she doesn’t want to go through with that grief again herself?
The trouble, as I see it, is this: your current self would know things your past self doesn’t, but your past self would remember certain things more vividly than your current self does. Your past self would seek knowledge and information, whereas your present self would want to seek—or avoid—memories. What happens in this poem is that they both get what they want, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
A few years ago, two talented women performed this poem as an improvisational dance at the New Dischord arts festival in Chattanooga. That was wonderful, since I’ve always thought of this poem as a kind of dance. There’s a painful, physical tension to their conversation that manifests in the end as tenderness—they sync up and start speaking together as one voice instead of pushing and pulling against each other. I see a kind of healing in that—a healing we can sometimes achieve in our own self-dialogue, when we’re quiet and when we’re lucky.
Alyse Knorr is the author of two books and two chapbooks of poetry: Copper Mother (Switchback Books, 2015), Annotated Glass (Furniture Press Books, 2013), Epithalamia (Horse Less Press, 2015), and Alternates(dancing girl press, 2014). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, The Greensboro Review, storySouth, and Columbia Poetry Review, among others. She teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage and serves as a founding co-editor of Gazing Grain Press.