Cosmonauts do it in heaven by Keith Gottschalk: a book review

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Cosmonauts do it in heaven
Keith Gottschalk
Hands-On Books, 2021

Keith Gottschalk’s poem “As the sun sets” ends with the following lines: “as the sun sets/ the astronomers eat breakfast,/ set off, start work.” It is one of the first poems in his recent collection, Cosmonauts do it in heaven. The few simple phrases read like an invitation to follow not only the astronomers, but also the poet, into the night sky in order to accompany the author on his quest to honour the scientists who, throughout the ages, have observed and studied the stars above us, as well as to expose the challenges and prosecutions they have faced along their paths to understanding.

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The few simple phrases read like an invitation to follow not only the astronomers, but also the poet, into the night sky in order to accompany the author on his quest to honour the scientists who, throughout the ages, have observed and studied the stars above us, as well as to expose the challenges and prosecutions they have faced along their paths to understanding.
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In this volume, Gottschalk takes you on a journey in their footsteps, tracing the mysterious movements and constellations of space they have explored. As the James Webb Space Telescope is making its way to its final destination, from which it will look into our past and reveal the latest secrets of our origins, the irrepressible fascination in all celestial things has once again come to the surface of global attention. And so it feels timely to read a poetry collection like Cosmonauts do it in heaven, even if it might not be everyone’s cup of heavenly tea.

Throughout his life, Gottschalk has combined his passions for poetry and astronomy. Cosmonauts do it in heaven testifies to his commitment to both. Known for his anti-apartheid poetry, he is a former head of the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape. In the 1980s, he introduced the first university course on space policy in Africa. Between 2005 and 2006, he served as the chair of the Cape Centre of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa (ASSA) and is also a veteran member of the British Interplanetary Society and the Planetary Society (Pasadena). He serves on the exco of the South African Space Association and founded the UWC Space Association. He has published in Astropolitics, African Skies and MNASSA on the political uses of astronomy and on space history and policy. He is also the chair of the board of directors of the South African Literary Journal.

For the uninitiated, Cosmonauts do it in heaven might feel like an exploration of space itself, seemingly obscure and impenetrable at first, but the poetry is infused with a desire to take the great leap, to reach for the sky and to celebrate its wonders and “mysteries,/ solved & sensuous” (“First light”). The poems can be seen as launching pads for further individual investigations beyond the pages of the collection, which commemorates seminal discoveries and inventions and the power of curiosity.

Many readers will recognise the famous scientists and explorers who feature in the book’s pages – from Copernicus to Newton – but some might be new, perhaps even more fascinating, especially for local audiences. Thebe Medupe was the first black South African to get a doctorate in astronomy and today is a leading astrophysicist and founding director of Astronomy Africa. Patricia Whitelock was the first woman astronomer in permanent post in South Africa. Her research interests include pulsating stars, mass loss in evolved stars and stellar evolution. Their mention (among many other noteworthy personalities) in the poems makes you want to find out more about these remarkable people who have shaped their respective fields of inquiry. Equally, well-known historical events are juxtaposed with more intimate experiences, and both draw the reader into their orbit as we listen in “on the unknown” (“Square kilometre array”).

The poems contain a lot of historical and scientific knowledge, including mathematical equations, that does not always lend itself to being sheathed in poetic beauty, but the poems always feature lines that bring us into the realm of the stunningly aesthetic: “you, frailness of flesh & skin/ wrapped in only blueprints and hope/ to plunge through furnace of plasma” (“Shuttle”). Science-orientated poems are intertwined with more personal and playful ones as the poet reflects on life on Earth, the stars and the moon his constant companions. Gottschalk was imprisoned for his political beliefs. In “First night”, he describes how he saw the moon holding “vigil over the captive”.

We cannot help but read into the stars, and they’ve always reflected our desires. And so, unsurprisingly, in “Full moon”, a moonbeam “plays across my lover’s breasts// I follow its lead”. Furthermore, a few of the poems are delightfully humorous; my favourite of these imitates an Eskom media release and ends with the line: “For now, please keep feeding nectar to one hundred fireflies in a glass jar.” Jeff Bizos would profit from the biting reminder of “Ascension”: “if you are a saint/ you can ascend to heaven/ on a wing & a prayer.// but for the rest of us/ we’re going to need:/ lots & lots// of taxpayers …”

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Richly illustrated by the poet’s photographic memorabilia of visiting places of interest to astronomy enthusiasts and by images of magnificent celestial bodies, Cosmonauts do it in heaven is a unique tribute to our solar system and the vast spaces of the imagination.
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Richly illustrated by the poet’s photographic memorabilia of visiting places of interest to astronomy enthusiasts and by images of magnificent celestial bodies, Cosmonauts do it in heaven is a unique tribute to our solar system and the vast spaces of the imagination.

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