Red Rover, Red Lover by Preston Smith / Roaring Junior Press / March 10, 2020
Mythology and outer space, corporeal bodies and celestial bodies interplay in stanzas and dance through couplets in Preston Smith’s debut poetry chapbook, Red Rover, Red Lover.
The first poem introduces us to the book’s narrator as well as Apollo and Artemis, while the final prose piece literally takes us from A to Z. Beautiful scenes throughout propel us from Earth to the stars and from modern-day situations to tales of legends past. The narrator sees life and love with such curious clarity with a unique bent towards the universal, the universe.
Apollo missions are referenced in many pieces within this collection. But Apollo also references the Greek god and here is where we see how Smith is plugged into valuable wordplay and nuances that such a duality can provide. “Apollo the First” shows us how a mission can be a person — a conquest — while descriptions of light and rust emphasize the terminology of both a relationship and a spacecraft.
In “Apollo Aborted,” the longings expressed in the previous poem are followed up with the downside of the pursuit of love and how the narrator experiences a very human awakening (or walk of shame). Suddenly the narrator is muddy, “say[s] no to every pickup truck/that stops to help.” The overwhelming notion that the narrator was “not born into divinity” builds strength here.
In poems after Apollo 5 and Apollo 7, descriptions such as “flames encased” remind us, again, that this body of work will continue to traverse a path wherein the narrator and Apollo will dance, interweave, flirt and mingle. However, just as a space shuttle can use flames in order to remain in flight, flames can also become “sputtered” and so goes the relationship between the narrator and the god Apollo. The blaze of “the sun returns” and the narrator is again doe-eyed over the abilities of the light presence of Apollo. It is then that the narrator is first introduced to Apollo’s sister, Artemis. This relates so heavily and rings true in a relationship where one meets their partner’s family.
Poems after Apollo 8, 9, 10, and 11 continue to show how the light of Apollo floods the narrator’s memories and feelings. It is also profound when “[the narrator] realize[s]/[Apollo] never truly had a home.” Time becomes an essential feature of the relationship’s nature as light and darkness come and go. The pair can withstand the seasons, but winter is an obstacle as more light becomes lost in each day. In flight, in this uplifting romance and reverence, or in a space mission, there is an ease of exploration. In “Interstellar Experiments (After Apollo 10)” all of the previous missions in the love affair culminate in the ability for the pairing to “stick the landing.” That idea drifts easily into “There was a reason I never took gymnastics lessons (After Apollo 11)” where sticking the landing can be difficult. In this poem, Apollo breathes life into the narrator’s abilities as they “spin around the globe” and perform acrobatics in zero gravity.
The bright light of awareness shakes the narrator awake in human form in poems after Apollo missions 12–17. Even in “To Knock Down A House (After Apollo 13) where a battle of otherworldly proportions takes place, the narrator “know[s] too well the intensity of familial pain.” Themes of the anxiety brought on by enclosed spaces and the nervousness of being with someone who has a parent in a position of power are very human ideas but are handled with great care in the moments that transcend the human. In the title poem, an ode to Apollo 15, the narrator shares the depths of loneliness but explores boundaries with “the lover.” Themes of family and interacting more with Apollo’s sister, Artemis, take place in “Zodiacal Geography.”
Outside of the Apollo-centric pieces, there are several poems in the latter part of the collection that continue to forge connection and conquering. We soon learn that “[a] god has many faces.” The narrator becomes more connected to Artemis and finds solace in her. Nearing the end of this collection of poems, we see the narrator exploring the self. In “The Price of Glass” the narrator realizes that a true self hides that is more “wooden, rigid.” In “Helios,” the narrator navigates home, feeling most alone, starts right back at the where the first poem began. Apollo is less prominent at this point, but the narrator reaches out to his moon sister as winter takes hold. “Wonderland as a Temporal Refraction” gives us a very interesting Lewis Carroll-esque take on mirrors — this time using the idea of the moon as being a mirror and how we can soak up the light that is cast.
The final prose piece sums up the light and dark of our lives and ourselves in a very alphabetic way. We began this book at point A with (Apollo and Artemis) and landed at Z in the end, with Zeus and the influence of the zodiac.
Red Rover, Red Lover is exceptional in intermingling so many ideas without being overwrought. It is even exceptional in its title. As children, many of us played the game “Red Rover” but a “rover” is also a type of research tool used on a planet’s surface. Love is also something to be explored and can often feel like a game, one of acceptance or failure, as the playground game Red Rover shows us.
Preston Smith has meticulously combined factors of emotion with interests in myth, space, and more and produced a chapbook that reads well even for those who do not know all of the minutiae of gods, goddesses, or space missions. It is also interactive enough that one can easily access these aspects of the book to delve ever-deeper into the beauty of the cosmos Smith has written.