When the Rockets Fall


When my son presses the trigger,
a column of flaming hydrogen
shoots from the launch post,
leads a cubic metre
of evening to daylight for an instant.
I am thinking of Oppenheimer—
his becoming death—but my son,
in his own eyes, is Tsiolkovsky.
When the rocket falls and he scoops it,
softly, from the ready earth
of the baseball diamond, he stops
running. He is planted in the green
of Kaluga, with nothing between him
and the farthest reach of the sky.

It is late summer and the fields
are sunflowers spread like wings of
Ezekiel’s angels, each
enriched core is a thousand
eyes unblinking, each
stalk is straight as the flash
of fuel that has left us, again,
in twilight. It burns now
only in the eyes of the rocketeer
planning his next launch.
I and the instructions tell him
to stay back five metres,
but the pillar leads him, flash
after flash, toward the wilderness.

Again, the flaming ghost
of the launch tries to follow
the rocket and the breeze turns it
this way and that. The Torah
and the rabbis tell of the cherub
at the garden’s gate with sword
aflame, but neither says
what became of gate or garden,
as though both lay forgotten
forever. I am thinking of the Israelites
and the column of fire, the greatest
scientists in Russia wandering
toward a log cabin in Kaluga,
my son approaching departure.

I can’t believe in a garden
overgrown—Eve’s children
not returning again
and again to the gate like gnats
to a bug zapper, their bodies falling
black as the heart of a sunflower,
numerous as seeds. Poor
Jophiel . . . unable to put down
the sword or shut out the screams.
Tsiolkovsky, at least, was deaf
before a rocket was fired,
dead before they began
to kill. My son is screaming
with excitement as the rocket rises.

I am thinking of Dollezhal,
who didn’t know about the weapons
program when he began work
on plutonium production—who dreamed
in peaceful atoms. The rocket
falls to the ground intact.
My son wants to go higher;
Again I read the instructions
in three languages. My son
is still Tsiolkovsky—still
Dollezhal—and I am Sebeok,
who tried to find a way
to warn the people of the future
away from the waste sites.

It was a difficult problem.
The spent fuel would remain
for millennia, and no one knew
what languages would be spoken by the people
who blundered into the caverns
—how they would think or respond.
It was feared they would be awed
by the engineering, would mistake the vaults
for tombs of great rulers
or temples of powerful gods
and break-in, irradiating
themselves as they tried to draw closer
to some half-remembered ancestor’s
unimaginable bequest.

When it is too dark to go on,
we start the car, leave
its exhaust. The water I am
is heavy. I am something more
than halfway through threescore
and ten. I am half dead—
an after flare of a rocket
already departed—but my son
looks at me like my eyes can lift him
to the stars. Poor child . . .
He does not know the bodies
I have left by the swords I can’t
put down. He cannot tell
the difference between a miracle and a warning.

About the Poem

Over the summer, my nine-year-old’s favourite new toy was a little reusable hydrogen-powered rocket that shot up about twenty metres or so before falling back to the ground. He was thrilled and fascinated by the science and the engineering behind it, and I was delighted to watch it tease his curiosity and fire his imagination. But as the rockets kept falling on Ukraine, on Israel, and now on Gaza, I could not shake the feeling that there was a terrible, perverse symmetry between the innocent enthusiasm that has never yet imagined using a rising rocket as a weapon and the exhausted cynicism that has learned to treat falling ones as instruments of policy, tools of survival, or simple facts of life. Somewhere in Gaza is a little boy who would have loved that toy as much as my Jewish son did, but will never grow up now to take its inspiration into the future. Somewhere in Ukraine is a mother whom I–a Russian speaker–will never strike up a conversation with at the park while we watch the children play. Sometimes people express their hope that the coming generation will change the things that seem intractable to us, but I pray that we do not leave this burden to them–who do not deserve it–but instead learn to find the children in ourselves and listen to them.

About the Author

Reyzl Grace is a poet, essayist, translator, short story writer, and post-Soviet Jewish lesbian from Alaska. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, named a finalist for the Jewish Women’s Poetry Prize and Best Literary Translations, and been featured in Room, Rust & Moth, the Times of Israel, and elsewhere. By day, she is a teen services librarian in Minneapolis—by night, a poetry editor for Psaltery & Lyre and Cordella Magazine. You can find more of her at reyzlgrace.com and on Twitter/Bluesky @reyzlgrace.

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