Charting the life of "The Astronaut," a lonely boy who becomes a man desperate to escape his world of disappointment and despair for the hope and redemption of the skies, this collection reflects on the power of imagination to craft new narratives and realities, to alter what is in favor of what might be, and to elevate us from the world we inhabit, though we are inevitably brought crashing back down to Earth.
"The Astronaut Checks His Watch is a book of profound empathy, humility, and grace. Montgomery has created an alchemical blend of image, story, and essayisitic exploration that takes the reader deep into the psycholical and emotional reality of The Astronaut, a tragic hero whose big dreams transcend the gritty, violent and brutal world in which he lives. Reaching to the sky and to the facts and language of astronomy and to the world beyond, the poems seduce and tease the reader, constantly surprising and satisfying with every turn." — Steven Church, author of Ultrasonic
"Strikingly intelligent and deeply political at its core, The Astronaught Checks His Watch reads as a novel in verse—made of poems that examine, with unflinching clarity, the endless possibility and sorrow of imagination, the tragic and redemtive power of imagining ourselves out of this life and into another. Sarah Fawn Montgomery gives us 'a boy hanging stars to wish on later' and his classically American Dream is both what saves him and what renders him entirely alone." — Stacey Waite, author of Butch Geography
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time, ‘til touch down brings me round again to find I’m not the man they think I am at home.
—Elton John "Rocket Man"
Red’s at the gas station again, sleeping
on the ground between the pumps,
his shopping cart full of cans silent
underneath the thick morning fog,
not like when he wheels clanging
from car to car asking annoyed folks,
Spare change? Bum a smoke?
or announces Earthquake’s coming!
hands tangled in his thick red beard.
The station manager arrives at 5:30 a.m.,
looks down and asks Red to move,
but he means to the side of the station,
the place the sun warms when it rises.
He lights two smokes and gives one to Red,
who says he sees loneliness in the clouds.
The manager wanted to be an astronaut once,
and the two of them stare at their smoke
launching up and away in the sky, spiraling
around and eventually into one another’s.
Later, the manager thinks about zero gravity
while customers pay without looking at him,
thinks about how things are weightless in space
when customers complain the restroom is dirty,
steal beer, draw a mustard face on his clean floor.
What do you think I need seven cents for?
a greasy kid smirks at the change
left from his 7:00 a.m. condom purchase.
Red knows not to come inside,
but one day the bell announces his arrival
and he calls bluntly into the store:
The moon is falling into the ocean.
No one is listening—Slurpee overflow,
Pringles out of stock, error on pump four.
A woman pushes around Red to get inside.
The manager watches Red leave to sit alone
in the sun as the woman complains, Hurry up—
Do you even understand what I’m saying?
At two a.m. the manager leaves to go
home to his cat and his twelve-pack of beer.
It’s dark and it’s cold when he leaves,
so he buys Red a hot coffee, and they talk
while they watch the stars wink down at them.
He’s going home to no one, so he stays with Red
a while, watching and sipping, hands cupping warmth.
Finally, he waves to Red, only living soul awake.
He looks at the sky and swears the moon is sagging.
*Originally appeared in Slipstream
The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.
—Wernher Von Braun
Around six p.m., when the sun slides
in and out of focus, makes things hazy
like what’s real might not really be.
Suddenly he’s back in time, watching
his eight-year-old self playing alone,
tetherball in the schoolyard at dark,
punching the ball with a clenched fist,
ducking to watch it arc quick around.
It’s like slingshot acceleration, he thinks,
as his younger self swings and jabs,
never flinching at the feel, the smack
of the ball against his bare knuckles.
The way astronauts get close to a planet,
use the pull of gravity to rotate around,
build speed, need the force of another
to shoot off clean in a new direction.
He wants to grab, clutch the ball before
it reels around, wants to warn the child
to stop dodging, to look before he strikes,
warn himself that isolation is only solitary
a while before it becomes plain old lonely.
He thinks from the future, wants to leave
his hiding place back in time, walk up
to the boy a man, and change his course.
But he’s made a promise not to break
the continuum between time and space,
so he hides on the abandoned playground,
watches as the boy winds the rope tight
around his bare fist, arcs back and flings,
studying, waiting for the movement to stop
before leaving the ball hanging lifeless,
slowly walks home alone in the dark.
*Originally appeared in Fifth Wednesday
I thought the attractions of being an astronaut were actually, not so much the Moon, but flying in a completely new medium.
When the man who wanted
to be an astronaut holds a bottle
to his aching lips like a kiss,
drinks deep the amber warmth inside
until it goes down where the hurt starts,
he thinks about space—silent as a curse
but sparkling with the souls of the dead,
or like a million wishes for the taking,
him as a boy watching on the porch,
trying to decide, his parents fighting inside.
He thinks about the way the bottle
might float in front and away from him
in space, avoid his grasp, resist him.
Or the way he couldn’t chain-smoke Camels,
because you can’t light a match with no oxygen.
He thinks he wouldn’t feel deadweight heavy,
could get out of bed for once, weightless.
How even with all that dark he’d catch a glimpse
of light—more than now—in the marbled giants,
and even tiny, he wouldn’t be insignificant like here.
Soon the astronaut is sloppy swimming
on the dirty carpet—hair, cigarette butts, stains—
like there’s no gravity. He’s laughing and crying
like he sees the moon. He’s talking to no one,
saying he can see why God made it all,
looking through the empty bottle like it’s a helmet,
eyes wide, almost panicked to take in what he sees,
mouth still open like a kiss as he swivels, swerves,
stumbles to caress the watery color around him,
glowing rings like Saturn around his world.
*Originally appeared in Harpur Palate
It’s lonely out in space on such a timeless flight.
—Elton John, "Rocket Man"
And learns the world has gone on without him
while he watched blackness from the porthole,
spent his days and months at the thick glass,
thinking he might see something in the nothing
if he just looked hard and for long enough.
Summer came and went, fruit falling from the vine
as he stared at specks of stars, circled weightless.
December brought the cold fringe of a new galaxy.
He missed the New Year, floating silent alone
over the crowded globe, a toast of freeze-dried fruit.
His birthday was black Pluto; he saw the rings
of Saturn when his mother left his father;
he never knew his love grew tired of waiting,
staring at the silver glow of Venus, hoping he might
stop searching and come back down to her.
When he finally returns, removes the helmet
so he can see full around, he checks his watch.
Without the moon to tell the tides he never knew
the years slipped by, but now feels his bones ache,
atrophied, older from solitude, so long with no gravity.