She gave us another creative writing exercise to complete: describe the night, apply images, and use detailed observation. Then, lightly, in a voice tinged with an affable threat, the teacher added these words: ‘and, whatever you do, leave the moon alone, it has suffered enough.’ She’s right. It’s hard to describe the moon without falling into cliché, repeating hackneyed phrases about ‘the silvery moon’, ‘the ghostly galleon’, ‘the floating balloon’. As if we needed further explanation as to why we were banned from further sullying the moon, she continued to hammer her point home using a quote from Chekhov: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ And ever since then, I have abandoned mentioning the moon in any but the blandest terms. Now it is time.
Apollo 11 took off fifty years ago today. On board, three men, all born in 1930. Not young pups prone to excitement, but self-contained, laconic men, the kind who might say, ‘it is what it is’if that was a saying back then. Careful and precise with their words, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins were a peculiar breed, so it is hardly surprising that some of the descriptions they sent back from beyond the earth were not the most lyrical. Armstrong described the moon’s surface as: ‘….fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the sole and sides of my boots.’ In some ways, I think my creative writing teacher would have been pleased with his lack of adornment.
Listening to sound clips from fifty years ago, I can still reach a place of wonder and transcendence despite the simplicity of their words, and yet I speculate – probably unfairly – as to whether that feeling of wonder could have been enhanced had the astronauts been better able to express the profundity of their experience? ‘Isn’t that something’ and, ‘Goddamn that’s pretty’ were two of the insights we got from them as they looked back down onto the earth fifty years ago today – not going to win them any Pulitzers. Then I check myself. Hadn’t they enough to be doing, adapting to micro-gravity, getting to the moon and back, and all that, without composing poems in their head? On this very subject, Collins said,‘We weren’t trained to emote, we were trained to repress our emotions, lest they interfere with our complicated, delicate and one-chance-only duties. If they wanted an emotional press conference … they should have put together an Apollo crew of a philosopher, a priest, and a poet.’ Fair enough.
Tonight is a full moon. July’s moon is called the ‘Buck Moon’ so named because this is the time when the new velvety antlers of buck deer push forth. It falls between the poetically named ‘Strawberry Moon’ of June and August’s ‘Corn Moon’. And tonight, if the sky is clear (and the forecast looks promising for Edinburgh) not only can I look up and think of those three watchful but wordless men hurtling towards the moon, but I might also be able to see a partial eclipse of the moon that happens to fall on this very date. Eyes up, it’s time to wax lyrical under that full moon and break all the rules.
Moonrise, June 19 1876, by Gerard Manley Hopkins
I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night, in the white and the walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaical fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of dark Maenefa the mountain;
A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, entangled him, not quit utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight, unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, eyelid and eyelid of slumber.