A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Drafting and Crafting of “Pale Blue Dot”: Keeping the Schmaltz at Bay from issue 298.4

Martha Silano


About four years ago, I had the honor of spending a week in residency at a scholarly retreat center in the far Northwest corner of the United States. My project involved conducting research about the Voyager missions sent into orbit during the late 1970s. I spent a lot of time that week reading Carl Sagan’s Murmurs of Earth, a book that tells the story behind the Voyager mission. I also listened to clips of the music (YouTube has compiled them into one recording) the committee deemed most worthy of placement on, The Golden Record, a gold-plated copper recording meant to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth: Mozart, Beethoven, Blind Willie Johnson, and Chuck Berry, along with pan pipes, a Peruvian wedding song, a Navajo night chant, and a Pygmy girl initiation.

I took a lot of notes and wrote a few as yet unfinished poems, but it wasn’t until I returned home and happened to be listening to a National Public Radio story about a parting shot taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 as it headed off toward interstellar space that I realized what poem I had to write.

I reapplied for a short stay at the same scholarly retreat center, and this time I brought this article. My assignment: to translate journalistic prose into a poem titled “Pale Blue Dot.”

If you read the piece, you’ll quickly see how much is lifted directly from it—the name of the woman who stared at her screen in the dark, who, straining her eyes, became the first person to see the now-famous speck. How seeing it gave her chills. How the photo almost wasn’t taken. How the reproduction of this photo at the Jet Propulsion Lab requires constant replacing because it gets touched so much by viewers.

I probably could’ve left it at that—written a poem that spat back all the details of the NPR story. But the tricky part for me is that Carl Sagan’s reaction to the dot is a bit, shall we say, poetic, by contemporary poetry standards. It borders on schmaltz.

I didn’t want my poem to wax poetic in Sagan-y fashion, which is why I think it took another year or two after I wrote the first draft to figure out how to close the poem. I wanted the tone to be serious, but the hard part was resisting the urge to go preachy, or worse, to mimic or mime Sagan’s sentiment (from his book by the same name as my poem): Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of … Etcetera. I mean, that’s the gist of it, but how was I going to make it, well, if not new, at least mine?

I kept having to pull away from a path that would end in preachy resolve, and then three things put a muzzle on my haranguing:

While thinking about this little tiny dot in space, trying to somehow convey that our lives are both necessary and utterly futile, my daughter started asking me to give her a ride in a spaceship. It’s a game we often played at the time – I would lie down on the floor and lift her up in the air. She’d put out her “wings,” and then I’d start shaking her around and yelling “turbulence!” Later that day I had to run a few errands, and my husband asked, "Where are you going? When are you coming back?" Innocent enough requests and questions, but in the context of revising the poem, they got me thinking about not only the spaceship’s trajectory (would it ever make it to star Gliese 445, some 40,000 years from now?) but what makes human life worthwhile and significant: loved ones. Not only loved ones, but being accountable to them; also human culture and ritual. Without other humans, how much fun could life on Earth be? How meaningful and worthwhile would our lives feel to us?

A child’s innocent request for a ride in a spaceship, coupled with a partner’s wanting to know my plans had gotten me 2/3 of the way there, but one more thing had to occur in order to finish the poem. I needed to return to Candice. It couldn’t be my husband asking me where I was going. No. Instead I had to show empathy for this woman all alone in the dark seeing something utterly mind-blowing for the first time. What must’ve been going through her head? Once I turned the lens on Candice for my parting shot, the poem clicked into place.

Martha Silano is the author of What the Truth Tastes LikeBlue PositiveThe Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, and, her latest book of poems, Reckless Lovely, has just been released from Saturnalia Books. Martha's poem, "Pale Blue Dot," is featured in issue 298.4.