In Marlena Chertock’s collection On that one-way trip to Mars (Bottlecap Press, 2016), sections are divided into planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, etc., and the reader quickly realizes how the poems reflect different characteristics of not only planets but people. Each planet possesses a different appearance, has select wants and needs. Each planet holds specific gifts. It is only fitting that Chertock begins with Mercury and its heat, its passion.
In the very first poem, “800 degrees,” we are immediately thrust into extremes:
You wake up breathing fire
and try to get the flames to stay
in your throat, but they burn off your clothes…
You try to get up from the bed
but your room has become a jungle
and you’re the roots of an old tree…
Many of the poems circle the genetic bone disorder that Chertock and her sister have lived with called Spondyloepiphyseal Dysplasia. There are doctor visits and tests and pills and pain, but also warrior-like strength and immense love. Despite the collection’s title, alluding to an escape, most of Chertock’s words are rooted into the earth, the here and now, the real, the sensual, the fight.
In one of the best poems I’ve ever read, “Armpit Arsonist,” Chertock depicts a scene of two young people in a car with music, windows down, skin glowing. It is gritty and wild, a modern day James Dean movie still. The language creates speed and urgency:
Halfway through the cigarette
he looked at her. She was laughing,
pressing the gas pedal harder.
He didn’t think a dollar-store lighter
could make that much spark,
turn hair soap-scented to month-old trash.
He joked about the tufts tucked between her arms.
Why didn’t she just shave?…
The smell filled the car. She let go of the wheel
to swat the flames spreading from her underarm…
Chertock expertly weaves a sentence so that moments change in the blink of an eye. There is laughter one minute and bodies flying out of cars the next minute: “like rockets leaving the earth.” The poem is pure terror and power.
This same sensuality and action sparks from the page in “I want to date an astronomer.” Chertock captures romance and sunsets and lust:
If I spotted a shooting star,
she’d say it’s an icy rock
burning up in our atmosphere…
When I’d undress for her,
she’d say “you’re stardust,”
kiss my shoulder, my thigh…
Yet at the end of the poem Chertock warns her not to “come too close,” that she will get burned. There are many of these warnings in the collection: the beauty on the earth and in the universe and how quickly it can dissipate if we are not careful.
A common theme surrounding space exploration is the idea of perspective—how humans are so small, tiny ants easily snuffed out by a meteor. Anything can happen in the blink of an eye. In “Find them,” Chertock plays with that idea of perspective: scientists discover a “shadow tucked behind its star” and perhaps the light is from 1,400 years ago. We don’t know what exists and what does not. What is light in real time verses ghost light? Even in the speed of light, things can go wrong, Chertock surmises. How long do humans have to wait for something to go right? Even living our tiny lives, we still want things, crave connection, like the dying warmth from a star.
When not in space, Chertock’s poems excel at exploring what lives on the ground. She illustrates poignant familial relationships, lust, the themes of what moves, what succumbs to stasis. Chertock comments on the wrong direction of growing bones at the same time as describing the sturdiness of an Evergreen.
In “But the evergreen stays the same,” there is almost a victory and a sadness in how the Evergreen stands tall while the seasons hurl and thrust action about all around it. We admire the Evergreen but there is also a sense of wistfulness:
In the spring when the flowers bloom
and the bushes and grass appear,
the evergreen stays the same.
In the summer when it’s blazing hot
and the trees are full green
and school’s out,
the evergreen stays the same.
And in the fall again, when the wind howls,
and the leaves of brilliant colors
make a full blanket on the ground, it’s beautiful.
But, the evergreen stays the same.
Like within a sonnet, the last line makes a switch. We follow the evergreen’s steadfastness through the changing of the seasons. And then Chertock adds that “But,” into the last line. Like maybe staying the same isn’t always what we should do, what we should crave.
Perhaps if we are lucky, we can focus on the tiny things, no matter if they are on the ground or high up in the dark. In the last poem of the collection, “Internal combustion,” Chertock writes:
I don’t notice the earth
turning 1,040 miles per hour
in its trip around the sun.
Life is selecting a focus and moving onward, no matter what plane you exist on. Chertock chooses a plane of passion and overcoming hardship but she is no poster girl. She gets down in the dirt and feels the grit, dances slowly in the quiet moonlight.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens lives in Midwest and is the author of three full length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016), The Messenger is Already Dead (Stalking Horse Press, March 2017), and We’re Going to Need a Higher Fence, tied for first place in the 2017 Lit Fest Book Competition. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is also the author of nine chapbooks. Her chapbook She Came Out From Under the Bed (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro) recently came out from Dancing Girl Press. Recent work can be seen at or is forthcoming from Prelude, Kestrel, Yalobusha Review, decomp, and Inter/rupture. Visit her website to learn more.