Space Has No Borders: A Review of Yona Harvey’s You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love by Cedric Rudolph

Space Has No Borders: A Review of Yona Harvey’s You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love

by Cedric Rudolph

You Don't Have to Go to Mars for Love
by Yona Harvey
Four Way Books, 2021

Yona Harvey tugs at the boundaries of the page in her second poetry collection, You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love. She challenges us on the capabilities and constraints inherent in the medium of writing.

Film directors can show two sides of a story by juxtaposing points of view on a split screen. So can Harvey. In her poem “The Dream District / Origins,” she divides the text into two columns on either side of the page, as if two poems are being written simultaneously. A dancer moves in the open reign of an empty stage. In “Necessarily,” Harvey’s lines sway across the page as a dancer would.

We inhabit the realm of a vocalist in “Performance Perm / “I’d Rather Be a Blind Girl.” Etta James’s lyrics and improv in italicized text collide with the unitalicized narration of a separate speaker. If you’ve ever heard Etta James sing, you have no choice but to hum along when you read the italicized lyrics, no choice but to conjure Etta James’s scorching contralto. Thus, Harvey recreates a vocal performance on the page: “All my muscles deep down undone now. Girl, I shoulda Something told me Something told me…” We should only be able to experience this simultaneity in real life as one singer holds the harmony while another sings the lead vocal. But here, the poem does this work, even though we are seemingly only reading words on paper.

We interact with these poems, synapses firing, body tipped toward the page. The book’s eponymous poem progresses cinematically across ten pages. In “You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love,” an unnamed speaker begins an intergalactic transmission, informing a distant source about earthly relationships. Voices cut in: “[Request to transmit computer originated audio file to terminal unit].” We can hear the static in the background, imagine a grainy voice transmitting: “The man of the house. drinks his coffee. Informed. direct. occasionally. profane.” Harvey further crafts the effect of a strained transmission by breaking up her sentences with strategic periods. Harvey plunges us into outer space by taking advantage of extended white space between stanzas.

There’s a certain bravery in it, the writing. You have to be willing, as a poet, to bypass what your internal critic tells you. You get these blueprints from the muses, and your logical mind tells you, This needs to be a house. But your intuition says, This is a tree house with brick siding. And sometimes, you go ahead and build the standard house because that’s what you know; because you’re afraid the people driving by will have no idea what they’re looking at if you build the brick house in the tree canopy.

Harvey includes found poems, mad libs, deconstructed forms. As a poet, she’s obviously not satisfied with what the cerebral cortex serves up. As a reader, my faith in the devastation words can deliver has been restored.

In “Thereisnocenteroftheuniverse,” Harvey includes only an epigraph and a single sentence as text. The sentence “There is no center of the universe” is repeated over and over, running from the left to right margin, continuing down the page. The epigraph hails from Audre Lorde’s 1985 article “We Must Learn to Use our Power”: “Because they were dirty and Black and obnoxious and Black and poor and Black and Black and Black…” Lorde wrote the article during a time when apartheid still reigned in South Africa. The essay itself is a call for American Black people to discern where they spend their money—because some U.S. funds were being used to further the apartheid system—and to wake to the racial injustices happening at home.

In the quote, Lorde is referring to the 1985 bombing by Philadelphia officials of Black men, women, and children connected to the religious and political MOVE organization.

Harvey juxtaposes these texts visually and trusts her readers to do the rest. We have to slow down. We cannot skim this poem. Or turn the page. Instead, we meditate. Meditate on Lorde’s words. Meditate on the destabilizing revelation that “Thereisnocenteroftheuniverse.” Just as in meditation you choose the breath to focus on, or a candle, or a bell chime. Every reader will have a different experience with the poem, and take something different away.

Poems are supposed to remain “palpable and mute,” as Archibald MacLeish posited in his famous “Ars Poetica.” After reading You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love, MacLeish’s words seem conservative, stuffy. 

A poem can scream. A poem can spin out, self-destruct. A poem can dance.

Cedric Rudolph moved to Pittsburgh, PA in 2016. After two years at Chatham University, he earned his MFA in Poetry. He is currently in his third year of teaching fiction and poetry to middle and high school writers at the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts school (CAPA). He is one of the founding editors for Beautiful Cadaver, which publishes social justice-themed anthologies and stages theatrical performances. His poems are published in Coal Hill Review, Christianity and Literature Journal, The Laurel Review, and the Santa Fe Literary Review.