The space shuttle Voyager is both the inspiration and title of the second collection by Chicago poet Srikanth Reddy. The University of Chicago assistant professor won the Asian American Literary Award for Facts for Visitors, his first book of poems. WBEZ Book Critic Donna Seaman offers her review.
Who is speaking, I asked myself as I began reading Voyager. This was not the lushly textured voice that distinguishes in Srikanth Reddy’s first book, Facts for Visitors. No, Book One, the first of three sections in Voyager, is spare, parsing, and philosophical. Here’s a sample:
There is no distinction between ideology and image.
He records his name on a gold medallion.
The philosopher must say is.
The world is legion.
The self is a suffering form.
Waves rise and fall, but the sea remains.
The narrator speaks tersely and tensely of war, the cold war, kingdoms, empires, nations. Time. Peace. Orders are given and seem not to be followed. The narrator names names. Schopenhauer. Kurt Waldheim. Hold that thought.
On to Book Two, a cycle of blocky little prose poems. One to a page, like a dark porthole. Now we sense that we’ve met the poet. And now we’re cued to one source of the book’s title, Voyager the space mission. Not that Reddy names it. Instead he writes,
“I became interested in the fate of a machine which had been launched into creation and disappeared from sight during my boyhood.” He confides that at night, he “sought refuge in the parallel journey.”
Voyager is a profoundly evocative subject for a poet. Especially since Voyager carries the famous Golden Record, “Earth’s Greeting to the Universe,” as NASA describes it. Srikanth Reddy writes:
“Aboard, I read, was a deeply-etched record of the world that floated away, full of popular tunes and beautiful technological problems. Perhaps an observer far in outer space might study this information in days to come. He would have to weigh carefully in his heart the words of a man who by some quirk of fate had become a spokesman for humanity, who could give voice to all the nations and peoples of the world, and, so to speak, the conscience of mankind.”
The ironic spokesman is Kurt Waldheim, then the Secretary General of the United Nations. He will soon be disgraced, but not derailed, when his concealed past as a Nazi SS officer is exposed. It is Waldheim’s voice that begins and ends this gracefully disquieting book of poems. It’s the result of an arduous mission of correction. Deeply affected by the problems Waldheim’s life embodies, Reddy enacted his own form of selective omission. He went through Waldheim’s memoir, In the Eye of the Storm, and painstakingly crossed out line after line. He then extracted words and phrases, slivers of truth, to create poems of beautifully unnerving disclosures and reflections.
Reddy writes that he does not want to judge Waldheim, but rather attempt to understand him. To that end, Book Three is a soliloquy of great empathy and tragic resonance in which Waldheim tells his story.
Voyager is a nuanced and haunting book of geopolitical, literary, moral, and spiritual inquiry. Guided by the poet, we envision the infinite mystery of space and the astonishing ingenuity and longevity of the Voyager mission. Srikanth Reddy also takes us on a voyage through the great unknown that resides within each of us––as we each carry our own etched records of memories, wounds, illusions, and hope on our journeys right here on spaceship Earth.