Poetry Review by Paul Watkins

Ken Hunt, The Lost Cosmonauts (Toronto: Book*hug, 2018). Paperbound, 120 pp., $20.00.

The Lost CosmonautsWith the spirit of exploration that sent Dante into the unknown, Ken Hunt’s poetry collection The Lost Cosmonauts examines the experiences of astronauts and cosmonauts who ventured into outer space, especially those who lost their lives in the pursuit of their missions. Drawing from myth, largely from the Greco-Roman pantheons, Hunt details the global and socio-political conflict of the Cold War era in relation to the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Following his debut collection, Space Administration (2014), Hunt’s The Lost Cosmonauts continues his exploration of language, history, and humankind’s endeavour to explore space. The book is a small thing to hold in your hands, but the ideas are expansive, moving from our nascent efforts to explore outer space to the celestial bodies of the planets in our solar system (the section “Celestial Bodies” is inspired by Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets). Engaging with a mythopoeia of the space race and showing an impressive control over poetic form and history, The Lost Cosmonauts is vital reading for those interested in the history and mythic significance of humanity’s explorations into space.

I was impressed with Hunt’s use of classical allusions to demonstrate our god-like aspirations, as well as our hubris. An Icarus theme runs through the collection: Icarus, the son of the artful Daedalus who created the labyrinth, ignored his father’s warning to not to fly too close to the sun, melted his wax wings and hurtled down into the ocean where he drowned. The opening poem, “Apostles of Icarus” ends: “The shield of Earth / sears our steel wings / as we fall home / flirting with fire,” which is echoed in the closing poem, “Per Aspera Ad Astra,” which asks, “How many have spread their artificial wings / only to feel, fire-torn, from their orbital / thrones.” The poems, especially those in the section “Wax Wings,” elegize the astronauts and cosmonauts killed during space missions. A later poem entitled “Last Words” is composed from the final words of cosmonauts: “Roger, uh, bu-,” “Uh-oh,” and “Get us out” are a kind of guttural poetry. In the postscript, “Escape Velocity,” Hunt writes that “Lost cosmonauts and astronauts are the heroes (or, in many cases, the martyrs and scapegoats) of modernity’s mythical expeditions into outer space, figures that remain central to propagandistic portrayals of American and Russian culture, respectively.” Donald Trump’s recent lauding of the Apollo 11 mission and his desire to plant the American flag on Mars sometime soon is a reminder that space exploration is entwined within nationalist myth-making. Despite this, the actual achievements of the astrophysicists and astronauts of these missions are remarkable, and they are largely to whom Hunt gives voice and song.

Many poems have an unabashedly lyrical style to them, and Hunt freely explores a variety of poetic forms to fit the given theme of each poem. He incorporates haiku, blank verse ghazal, a sestina, the Japanese choka, the sonnet, a villanelle, found poetry, and the poem “Voyage to Luna” is a 12-part poem written in dactylic hexameter (there is a connection between ancient ships and spaceships). There are poems written in terza rima in tribute to Italian poet Dante Alighieri that echo Dante’s epic journey, as well as the dangers of new knowledge (“Engine”; “Antiverse Palindrome”; “The Kardashev Scale”). Poetic language adapts and becomes an extension of space exploration. As Hunt pens in “Offshoots” (a contemplative poem about our ability to adapt to harsh environments), “Composed of living language, we will inscribe ourselves upon the pages of / this brutal universe…We have always yearned to shed our flesh.” Poetry is one way that Hunt can “breathe upon these slain” (“Ezekiel 37:9”), and his poetic eulogies do just that.

While Hunt underscores the political tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union during the space race, the collection does consider the current ecological crisis and political climate. “Astral Vagabond” concerns Muhammed Faris, who was the first Syrian (and second Arab) in space. Faris found himself a refugee—a vagabond—during the Syrian civil war and Hunt connects space travel to exile: “one of the few who crashed through / the ceiling of the sky, now carrying your / future on your back, on a demented / family hike into permanent hiding.” The poem reminds us that globalism/ imperialism/ climate change (one of the factors of Syria’s civil war was drought) are interrelated. We need to peacefully negotiate borders if we are to share this world. The same goes for space exploration, which could be, as Hunt believes, a unifying and cooperative force for our species. The poem, “Station,” asks, “How can we / afford to burn our sole / refuge when we have / no means of escape?” The connection between refuge and refugee reminds us that we cannot discard our planet or the people and life thereon. Indeed, our collective destiny might go beyond our planet: “we strive / to reach our rough-built destiny to rise” (“Astral Vagabond”).

Hunt understands that both science and art probe what it is to be human, made clear in the collection through our relationship with “an indifferent universe” (“Per Aspera”). I enjoyed The Lost Cosmonauts, not only for its thought-provoking subject matter, but for its probing inquisitiveness. By continuing to explore space, we too can become mythical for the next generation. As he says in “Probes”: “One generation / monitors what another / began, each waving / like the parents of / gleaming offspring embarking / on dark odysseys.”

We are called to build on the knowledge of the past, to honour those lost cosmonauts and their gifts to civilization, and to continue to voyage into the dark in search of new truths.


—Paul Watkins

As in The Malahat Review, 208, Autumn 2019