Book Review

Questions From Outer Space is about coming to terms with humanity’s destructive choices and orienting ourselves to life as a result. Diane Thiel’s poems lament our destruction of planet Earth and caution against how technology separates us from one another—yet the book ultimately presents a message of hope. These poems offer the possibility of solace in the natural world: the opportunity to escape our machine-constrained lives through water, woods, and stars.

Thiel’s collection reaches far in space, both globally as it travels to multiple continents and galactically as it takes us through the stars and past dark matter. We meet alien creatures who observe our planet from a distance in stoic surprise. In “The Factory (Questions from Outer Space),” our use of the internet confuses the extraterrestrials:

I can’t really figure them out.
They finally find the way to create
a wonderful tool to connect the world,
and within a few years,
it is also a production line
selling bodies, bets, packaged ideas
with no nutrition. I’ve read the labels.

I found the outsiders’ views refreshing for the stark reality check they provide on habits we engage in uncritically.

These galactic beings watch as technology distances us over time. They observe in “Remotely” that “things were heading that way / long before the virus,” finding that we “put up walls” and “keep to our screens, and only get remotely involved.” Other poems confront how we allow machines to make choices for us. “Swamp Roses” gives us floral “chemistry,” so “you can devise to make them bloom / uniform, cultivate them for a prize.” “KwickAssess” offers a carefree existence via machine: “Our algorithm takes the stress / of choice away. So why obsess?” This humor is heightened by actual fine print—lines in a smaller font—that caution “side effects include gray matter loss / of self-reliance catatonic state.” Thiel offers rich insight on how easily we ignore the world changing for the worse around us.

As the poems reach across space and time, we meet narrators who consider the moon’s phases, hang in zero gravity, and use wormholes for travel. This playfulness with time made my first read of “Questions of Time and Direction” confusing, when the otherworldly creatures watch our planet change:

Almost immediately, they begin offering food
out of their bodies. They draw liquids and gases
from their machines to present item after item in a system
that fits it all perfectly into the Earth, in reserved holes,
the coal placed in storage via the replenishing mines,
the oil by way of wells, deposited deep into the land.

The creatures watch us give “hides and furs to cover other beings” and see “forests appear almost instantaneously.” Later, they note:

It is possible that, like Venus,
their neighbor, at some point their sphere began turning
backwards on its axis. Time sometimes reverses,
depending on where we are in one universe or another.

This realization that the creatures are witnessing Earth’s destruction backward made the poem chilling on a second read as I reversed images, knowing now that when “one hand / or another gather the debris” the ocean is filling with garbage, and when the beings think we “forecast the world using art,” artists are only lamenting what we’ve lost.

In contrast to the ethereal galaxy imagery are scenes from pandemic life, which I read eagerly for Thiel’s ability to find rhythm and beauty in the quotidian. “High Noon at the Remote Corral” unloads a cacophony of pandemic confusion:

while across the house, the bari sax making it clear that this homestead
is not big enough for dueling instruments, though we never realized
how far even the little flute carries in these competing classes,
and now another blue screen of death, the crashing websites not scalable
enough for this scale of new users, as the noon hour looms

The poem unfolds in one long sentence of competing tasks. We see the ineffectiveness of online education: “another child left behind in the tunnel (or is it a collapsing mineshaft) / between the meet and the breakout room.” The children’s activities echo through the home: “when I do unmute, there is usually / a trumpet, sax, clarinet, flute, piano, or one nearly appropriate curse.” This and other parenting poems serve as sharp commentary on and documentary of the instability of pandemic life for families. I anticipate “High Noon” will be a poem readers return to for years to come.

Questions sends the message that to appreciate our world and cope within it we have to adopt an outsider’s gaze. The extraterrestrials’ view early in the collection comes full circle in many later poems, where we meet young people dreaming toward better futures. Refugee children from Syria draw their someday homes in “Library of Veria, Greece.” In “Planting Cape Florida, Key Biscayne,” students plant “native sea oats, the sea grapes / and gumbo limbo” in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. In “Questions from Four Dimensions,” children ask, “How far is outer space?” and “Are we real?” and “Where is time, and how do we run out of it?” We hear in these voices the questions we need to ask ourselves.

I’ve been unable to stop thinking about many of the stories told in these poems: of children who don’t stray outside a circle their parents draw in the sand; of stepping delicately over accumulated trauma like objects hoarded in a home; of, in “Letters from La Paz,” a boy in a parade, wearing “the body / of a condor hollowed out to costume.” These stories question what it means to be constrained by—but ready to burst beyond the limits of—time, place, and imagination. Many of Thiel’s poems invite readers to think deeply about protecting our planet, and just as many invite us to daydream, adopt a child’s or alien’s view, and flit away on a bird’s wing.

About the Reviewer

Ann Amicucci teaches writing at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. You can connect with her on Twitter at @AnnNAmicucci