NPM: Jack Butler, “The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman”

faked by Monday, April 16th, 2007


Taking a cue from our sister-site The Oh Really, and in fond memory of Catoptric, we here at Pretty Fakes today observe National Poetry Month today with Jack Butler’s poem “The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman,” from the 1984 collection of the same name. In the more just world we are trying to create, this post would inspire much debate among Butler scholars over whether we should have chosen a more recent example from the vast body of uncollected poetry that Butler has continued to publish in magazines and journals since this volume appeared, or something that better reflects his interest in formal poetry, or something less nakedly autobiographical. But we don’t live in that world, and anyway this poem speaks beautifully to many of the preoccupations and fascinations that crop up here at PF with considerable frequency. So:

“The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman”

When I was a child, I wanted badly to be a spaceman.
That was before the government took over and called them
——-astronauts.
I was the last child born before television.
I used to listen to “Spaaaaaaaace Puh-trol” on the radio.
That radio was the size of a jukebox.
It had flanged, rounded cones for knobs, and its interior
glowed more strangely than fireflies.
I did not know what lay behind the fabric of its speaker,
what impenetrable mystery.

I was probably the only kid in Enon, Louisiana
who wanted to be a spaceman.
This was before Sputnik.
I invented Enon, Louisiana’s first, last, and only
Secret Squadron Chapter, and flunked the physical I
——-thought up.

Everywhere I went I would start a club.
We were going to the moon.
I drew rockets in class, rounded cones with flanges,
I filled their outlines with blunt-cornered squares labeled
——-“Fuel,” and “Oxygen.”
I figured it would take a million dollars.
We were going to get the money from La Tourneau, another
——-mystery,
who lives in Vicksburg, and tithed,
according to Southern Baptist legend, not one-, but nine-tenths
——-of his millions.

I figured I could talk him into it.

None of it happened.
There’s no way you could believe how serious I was.

I used to lie on the hood of the car after prayer-meeting
staring at stars
while the grown-ups talked under the pole-light,
my back warm from the engine,
imagining all upside-down, hanging by my skin over deep galaxies,
longing to roll and see them under me as well.
The stars are not decoration: they are heart-broken love.

I wanted so badly to be a spaceman.
I became a Christian by accident at six—I’d only stood
——- to ask if this was the invitation,
but they thought I was coming forward,
and then I saw my mother weeping in terrible relief
——-and they were shaking my hand,
and it felt good to be congratulated for my moral courage,
and I kept quiet.

All this in a revival in a shotgun shack of weathered rough-
——- cut lumber in a cotton field.

How can I tell you what happened to my religion
when the robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still
lifted his master in a gesture like the Pieta
and took him back to the flying saucer and brought him back
——- to life?

So, science-fiction and scripture,
straight A’s and daydreams in the red-dirt hills and the delta,
the strange, deflected reluctant of desire:
these led me inexorably
to broken song, the musical names of the constellations.
I thought I was science-minded
because in the 4th grade I shaped from modelling clay,
the sort given at Christmas,
four ingots like quarter-pound sticks of butter, one red, one
——- blue, one green, and one yellow,
the best Tyrannosaurs Rex.
He was green outside because green in Compton’s Pictured
——- Encylopedia—but transected, what swirl, what rainbow!
True, after a myriad revisions
all went brown as the threat of entropy—the act that made the
——- rainbows eventually unmade their possibility.

And so it was the poetry that stirred me, the wonder of
. science,
and the numbers and formulae meant no more to me than the
——- band of numbers on the radio,
though many of them are still with me—MM’/d2, for
——- example,
an allegory for love as Heinlein had a character say in a
——- little paperback called Universe,
with Joe-Jim the two-headed mutant rampant on the cover.

The numbers and formulae, I repeat, were only arcane jargon,
and I gradually discovered,
blaming myself horribly, that I would never be a scientist,
and still more gradually admitted it to the world.
Neither will I live on a plantation again
or write the fiction that Faulkner wrote.
I am doomed to envy the root-eloquence of farmers,
the dumb luck of those trowel-tongued test pilots who first
——- tracked up the moon.

And yet, this very evening, swimming at B.A. Steinhagen Lake,
the sun like a ball of blood dropping,
the rose, the cerulean, the auric and just plain green tints
——- rippling and mingling where my stroke broke water,
the air all smoke and distance,
a barrage of bubbles trailing up like pears to trouble my face
from the cleft between thumb and forefinger of each hand
as each dove into the blurred green depths
like a man falling from orbit . . .

Once as I rolled for breath from that underworld
there bulked on the swell of my passage
the bulbed silhouette of a free-floating clump of water
——- hyacinth
like a piratical alien ship
flagged with aleph and zed and hove to,
and in that moment I knew that it was such a ship,
that all seed is such cargo,
that all journeys occur in a dangerous, lovely world with no
——- bottom,
that I am and have always been
a traveller among, and a poet of, stars.

Reprinted here with the gracious permission of the author. From The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman and Other Poems. Little Rock: August House, 1984.

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5 Responses to “NPM: Jack Butler, “The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman””

  1. gorjus says:

    I keep trying to write something about this poem, but it all ends up saying, over and over, “this is glory.” Suffice to say I want to joint he Secret Squadron Chapter and that failing the inestimably difficult physical is as wonderful as having created one.

    And put me down for liking “cosmonaut” more than “astronaut.”

  2. [Trackback]

    ” . . . Here’s a snippet of Jack Butler’s poem The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman: I wanted so badly to be a spaceman. I became a Christian by accident at six — I’d only stood —– to ask if this . . . ”

  3. brd says:

    Very interesting. I was fascinated by the line:
    “Neither will I live on a plantation again
    or write the fiction that Faulkner wrote.”

    It becomes a factoid for my collection of thoughts that inform my growing answer to the question that I have wrestled with in multiple forms, i.e. “What is southern literature?” One of my tentative conclusions is that Jack Butler is not a Southern writer in that he does not display critical elements that fit into my own personal requirements for a southern writer. That sentence does verify my thinking on Butler. (Note: My thinking on these things is admittedly invalid and shallow.)

    I do like this poem. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Jack Butler says:

    Dear BRD
    Noticed this late, so you probably won’t read my reply, but I too have pondered the question, “What is Southern literature?” I have an essay on the subject in the anthology The Future of Southern Letters, which suggest, somewhat tautologically, that attempting to answer the question is one of the things that gets you identified as a Southern writer. Perhaps it is useful to think that (nor surprisingly, given today’s media access to other lives) that Southern writers today contain their Southerness and can use it, but are not completely contained within it.

  5. Very good article and thank you for poting.