About Writing, Poetry, Publishing, rumination

“A Sort of Dance:” Sneak Circuits and the Catastrophe of Revision

After the deadly Apollo 1 fire, one of the groups investigating what happened to try and ensure the safety of the astronauts and program moving forward, was the “Sneak” Circuit Analysis Program. By “sneak” they mean surprise, essentially – an unplanned event caused by a combination of conditions, an event that seems to exist outside of normal or predictable cause/effect dynamics, an event that tends not to be detected during systems tests – not a hardware failure, but, to use astronaut Frank Borman’s words, a “failure of imagination.” A failure to imagine as much as possible of what might or could happen, or where, or how.

When I (fail to?) imagine the work of hunting down these circuits, I imagine dogged, optimistic focus, a relentless search for the thing not thought of, for the not just unintended but unimagined consequence. The work of believing that sneak circuits exist and can be found. The work of thinking the unthought-of, imagining the unimaginable. Of redefining “think” and “imagine.” Countless permutations of hundreds of what-if threads, versions upon versions of the circuitry. The work of examining what you thought you knew through a new lens, a lens that might be called “not-knowing.” (Forgetting what you [thought you] knew?) A curiosity – but a new curiosity that has been somehow untethered from the assumptions that structured the old curiosity, the assumptions that were so invisible as to seem . . . sneaky.

The word sneak suggests a degree of malice that those diligent engineers all know is impossible for a non-sentient machine to actually conjure; but that non-existent malice may nonetheless usefully inspire said engineers to conjure a personified adversary down in the circuitry, the “sneak circuit” biding its time like a hidden trapdoor or bomb. So the engineers’ job is to find what’s hidden, to imagine and root out paths to catastrophe (always catastrophe?) that no one had imagined yet; to worst-case-scenario all the possible choices.

The Apollo 1 fire was caused by frayed wires, and/but, more importantly, a huge failure to imagine what might happen if, while the vehicle was still on earth, at sea level, just running a test, a spark were birthed in a tiny space pressurized with a 100% oxygen atmosphere; a failure to imagine how materials believed safe might become explosively flammable in such conditions; a failure to imagine how the escape-hatch design meant to protect astronauts, to ensure that it wouldn’t open by accident somehow, would in fact get sealed shut by the internal pressure of the sudden, deadly fire in the capsule. The fire wasn’t the result of a “sneak circuit,” but if we think of our mental processes of imagining and planning and designing as circuits, something unimagined definitely snuck through.

Conventional wisdom around the fire and its aftermath is that the tragedy and the rigorous back-to-the-drawing-board degree of self-scrutiny it inspired probably saved the Apollo program in the long run. Some in NASA, engineers and astronauts and administrators at the time, have explicitly said that they believe there would probably not have been a moon landing had the Apollo 1 fire not happened. As I listen to their recorded voices and read their words, they seem gravely well-aware of what a heavy thing that is to say. To imagine.

One engineer, John Rankin, guesses they found about a thousand sneak circuits in various components at various times over the years of the Apollo program flights.

Apollo guidance computer schematics detail. [SOURCE]


I was planning to write a poem about sneak circuits, and may yet, but instead I have found myself thinking through this longer, sprawly prose about making poems generally, about the possibility of both “composing” and “editing” ultimately being processes of revision. How composing is a process inclusive, necessarily, of revision at all stages. Or a process that cannot exclude re-vision. These notions about the writing-as-revision process are definitely not me “discovering” anything new; rather, the lens of the “sneak circuit” work, in the context of some current editing and revising work I am struggling with, invites me back into these ideas.

It doesn’t feel particularly revelatory to describe or imagine revision as a search for and analysis of (or just a noticing of, a speculation towards) “sneak circuits” – a “circuit” in this metaphor being the author-chosen language (word choice, syntax, white space, sentence length, usage of capitalization, punctuation, arrangement/sequence, repetition of various types, etc.) which was presumably chosen for reasons (“intent?” “desire?” “purpose?” “pleasure?” conscious and/or unconscious?), toward some kind of end or effect (for the writer? for the reader/listener?).

(Ugh. Are all my compulsive parentheticals and slashes themselves sneak circuits undermining everything I am trying to say, even when what I mean is to clarify, or to include a multiplicity of possibilities? Well, they sure don’t sneak. They are anything but sneaky. They are something, but they are not sneaky.)

I don’t mean a metaphor of “sneak circuits” in the potentially reductive sense of a poem being a coded fortress which can only be broken into by an “expert” like a critic or English teacher, or which is only truly accessible by The Poet. I don’t mean to confirm the suspicion that poetry is by its very nature an arcane, miserly, specialist code to be cracked, that sense that poetry is only for special people with special knowledge. (OK, yes, yes, language is maybe a sneak circuit, yes, language itself is ALSO A [DE]CODE[ING] but I have to move along. I just do.)

I am, however, thinking very much about an author and their language, their desire to create (summon?) an image, an impression, a meaning, a communication, or . . . something. (To make/to uncover/to reveal/to conceal/to create a dynamic of revelation and concealment.) I am thinking this as I delve with a very attentive editor back into poems I wrote pre-pandemic, in a world both chronologically and emotionally so distant.

Delve, in that last sentence, is a verb I’m inclined to revise – it connotes a kind of assuredness or fearless excavation that I don’t feel about this work. Do I dip? Scratch at a surface? Flirt? Tiptoe? Toe-then-foot-then-calf-et cetera? I look but do I actually ever leap? Do I creep? Do I sneak? I am, on average, six years distant from the initial composing/revising of nearly all of these poems, from their “origins.” My feelings about these poems, my relationship to them, to their origins (?) have changed since I submitted this (finished, I would have called it) collection to presses for publication. Part of my struggle here is the distance I feel, across pandemic, across forgetting, across other transformative life experiences, from those origins; origins I feel pressed to revisit now, with the guidance of an editor who is suggesting a lot of changes.


The editor I am working with is attentive and engaged and kind – early on in our work together, she was explaining her philosophy around insisting on doing this close editing work face to face (via Zoom), instead of via back and forth emails. She offered that she and I might have different ideas about the effect of language in a particular line or stanza or image, and that she wanted to be clear about communicating hers and understanding mine. Explaining how important dialogue is to her, and wanting to avoid potentially negative points of disconnection or disagreement about the poems, she reassured me, “you can teach me differently.” Not an argument, not a back-and-forth horse-trading, but an opportunity to teach, to learn, to be taught. The process has, indeed, often felt like a dynamic of teaching and learning, moving in two directions. This feels, fundamentally, like revision – revisiting the manuscript with an ally who doesn’t carry the baggage of feelings about my poems’ “origins” that I carry. An editor-ally who believes the manuscript is “worth” publishing, who indeed accepted the manuscript for publication, even while thinking it was not quite “finished” yet.

In one of the poems I’m working on, I’m revising a stanza wherein I consider the implications and possible revisions of a word choice. (Kind of like I do with “delve,” two paragraphs ago.) I repeatedly use a particular word in the poem, then wonder in the final stanza about my choice of that word, my motives for those choices, about what it might mean if I chose other particular words. The stakes for the choosing of the word feel significant to the poem.

So, I’m revising a stanza about revision. From a years-later standpoint, I am revisiting a poem’s attempts at language about considering how language can create (and distort and obscure and reveal) realities. I’m revisiting the poem’s attempts (my attempts, the attempts of years-ago me) to “show the work” rather than just changing the word and erasing the evidence of having considered a “wrong word.” But the “wrongness” (or the attempting, the grasping, the emotional significance of choosing “wrong”) is a big part of the point. More so in the latest iteration, I think (I hope?) than the earlier.

I remember reading Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, feeling and feeding a big urge to play out all possible versions/combinations/choices/consequences/(circuits?). I would read one version, one series of choices, then trace my paths backwards, testing out alternative choices as I went, somewhat systematically. I don’t know whether or not I kept any kind of track of my methods, but I can easily imagine younger me keeping a tally, some kind of accounting or mapping of all my different routes. Apparently I’m not the only one who had that kind of desire.

Of course, there’s no “correct” or “incorrect” version of a Choose Your Own Adventure, except perhaps if you just read the thing through, page by page, in the order of the page numbers rather than in the order of your particular choices. That might be considered “wrong,” but also maybe really interesting. I wonder if my urge towards slashes, parentheticals, etc., in this essay, in other things I write, (though not as often in poems) is me seeking a way to have all possibilities at once, to not have to choose and make the wrong choice? A delusional planning for, and inclusion of, every possible outcome, good or bad, so as to be seen (!) as not making a mistake.

As I work on my poems with this editor over several months, as I piece together this essay in fits and starts alongside that work, some language finds its way to my feeds, from a poet and thinker I admire, Keith Wilson: “A strategy for revision is to put the poem away in a drawer for a while. To come back to it when you are less emotionally invested. To see it with a cool heart and mind. On one hand, I am doing that when I find an old poem. But what else I am doing, when I hate the voice of my youth, is discovering myself in a drawer. And finding that one can never divest themselves from themselves—I am still invested in this snapshot of my soul, and if I find it ugly, it is not a rational part of me finding it ugly, it is a rational part of my finding an excuse to look for flaws, now that I can pretend I am looking at a page I have moved fully on from. I am skilled in the art of bias against myself.” Here’s Wilson’s full essay.

The poems I’m working on have been in the figurative drawer. Some part of myself, in the drawer, yes. But if anything, I feel more (differently?) “emotionally invested” than I remember feeling two years ago, and my heart and mind don’t feel “cool” about it. I am grateful for (and anxious about) how Wilson’s words and ideas invite me to think about what I’m doing in this composing/revising/editing. What I say (to myself, to others) I’m doing.


I feel an urge today, in this new paragraph, in the weird, fractured present tense of my experience writing this essay in fits and starts, to account for the passing of time. The continuity implied by the equal spaces between the paragraphs is a false one. I’m returning to this essay after a couple of months away from it. I started writing it nearly a year ago. It has been in and out of a drawer. The poetry manuscript I’ve been editing, pending the final (?) word from the editor, is . . . finished? I don’t know what word to use now.

I am acutely aware that there will soon be published versions of several of my poems which are very different from one another. The “old” versions, in literary journals, online and in print, and the “new” ones, in the book. One conventional narrative arc of revision is “the new versions are improvements on the old” or “the poems are finally finished,” but my capacity to comprehend “final” has shifted, is shifting. It’s unsettling. I hope it might mean new things for me in poetry, in living. But/and I am anxious: what if the newer versions aren’t “better?” What if they are better than ones I had felt were “finished” earlier? What if I just can’t tell the difference anymore? What if I don’t care about the difference, or care differently about what such differences might mean or teach me?

I feel an urge today, nonetheless, to finally (!?) finish (?!) this essay. To end or to be done with it. I notice as well my urge to put a turn here, a volta of some kind, and I want it to be about sneak circuitry. About the catastrophes I fear, the ones secreted away in little machines of language I scarcely understand but which I made, re-made, may yet continue re-making. Strophe (a term related to stanzas and “turns” in poetry, like some use “volta”) and catastrophe conveniently (poetically?) share an etymological root.

from Etymology Online

Yes; revision can be (among other things) a “reversal of what [was] expected.”

If I’m really engaged with the work, not just dusting and polishing, perhaps the catastrophe of revision is not only unavoidable, but desirable. Even as it makes me anxious. I think I feel anxious because I’m experiencing this particular revision process as twofold: not just changing the poems themselves, but (for the first time? more intensely or intentionally than in the past?) revisiting and somehow (re)seeing the structures or systems within which the earlier versions were made. The circuitry from which the poems emerged, itself a made thing. Sure, I am probably (always? inescapably?) replacing old “failures of the imagination” with new ones. “Better” (?) ones. But, as Cornelius Eady wrote in his poem, “Dance at the Amherst County Public Library,” the final poem in Victims of the Latest Dance Craze: “even the failure was a sort of dance.”

Here’s a little more of the poem leading to that line, for context:

This is how I wasted my time,
Trying to become the Henry Ford of poetry,
And mass produce a group of words
Into a thing which could shake
And be owned by the entire world.

Naturally, I failed.

Of course, even the failure was a sort of dance.

Cornelius, my teacher from years ago (and still, always, inescapably, teaching me), inscribed my copy of that book in July of 1986. It was one of the first books of poetry by an individual poet I ever bought, the first ever signed by the poet, I think. The spine is broken in a couple of places. The cover features a photograph of a pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars on fire. I had to pull the book from my poetry shelves so I could add his lines at the end of this essay. How glad I am to have it in my hands, to read it — all of it — again.


Earthrise, Fifty Years Later

In December of 1968, a particularly difficult year in the U.S. and elsewhere, NASA’s Apollo 8 mission offered a moment of hope and beauty. Launched on December 21, the mission achieved many important “firsts” critical to achieving the moon landing, which would eventually happen halfway through 1969 — first (manned) launch from the Kennedy Space Center, first crewed flight of the behemoth Saturn V rocket, first humans past high Earth orbit, first humans to the moon, around the moon, back from the moon, first live TV images of the lunar surface.

But it was one of the first still color photographs taken by a human (Bill Anders) from deep space that became a provocative and enduring symbol of the beauty and fragility of our blue planet. It came to be known as “Earthrise,” and it was taken on December 24, 1968.

Here’s a poem from my collection, “Moon Shot,” inspired by the taking of this photograph:

Image #14-2383

            Apollo 8

Sometimes the best-laid mission plan,
tidy and typed in carbon triplicate
will miss something, even
with the laser-vision of all those eyes.

Sometimes, the mission itself
shifts as it unfolds,
as you’re breathless in the thrill
of hitting goals no one had thought
to set down on paper.

For instance
if you’re prepping
to be the first guys to fly out to the moon—
not land on it, just everything but
you’ll have studied your lunar maps,
the photographs snapped
by the machines sent in advance
who knew only to obey the crude code
with which they were programmed.

And NASA will have outfitted you
with all the best cameras and lenses they could find
and a list – such a list – of targets
to capture in color and black and white:
rilles, craters, debris fields, potential landing sites,
boulders, valleys, constellations.

But your exhaustive and specific list
will omit one simple thing,
and you won’t realize it until,
on the third lunar orbit,
freshly trimmed from an ellipse to a circle,
and “heads up” for the first time, you see

the earth
rising, improbably, fantastically,
from beneath the moon’s horizon.

You’re so well-trained
that your initial impulse
is to stick to mission, stick
to ticking off that list
everybody agreed on
back there on the ground

but the earth

the earth is coming up
over the moon
like the moon
like the sun

like nothing you have a metaphor for
and you are so well-trained

that you can still reach just past
the mission-bound edges of that training
and snap the color photographs
not on the checklist,
the photographs no one knew
would need to be taken –

the now-ubiquitous whole earth,
blue and borderless and feathered
with clouds,

dangling in the void

our precariousness
our us-ness
no longer an abstraction.

Who knows what lunar ravine,
what highlands or nameless maria
lost their place in the queue
so that everything we knew
could shift into new focus,
so we could be remade, albeit briefly,
by just a glance at this first true likeness
of ourselves?


Making it home, April 1970

Forty-five years ago this month, the “failed” Apollo 13 mission actually became “NASA’s finest hour” because of the incredible creative and technical work done by so many folks to bring the crew back home. The story of Apollo 13, which first unfolded the week after I was born (!) was what first inspired me, years ago, to retell some Apollo space program stories via poetry. In the spirit of turning failures into successes, and in honor of the great feats of Apollo 13, here’s one of the poems.


–Apollo 13

To make it home, they had to keep
hurtling away from Earth, gathered by gravity
into lunar orbit, the dark side never
quite this dark before.

Until the final burn they wouldn’t be allowed
to hold Earth in the window, where it belonged,
to burst towards it rather than let it fade
over their shoulders, shrinking to moon-size.

They had to turn their backs on home
and trust the stripped-down physics
of momentum and return.  They had to surrender
to the old forces and attractions.

To make it home, they had to fly away
from every instinct urging them to turn
around right there, as if the crippled craft
could turn on such a thin dime.

They had to believe in the machine,
that the spindly lunar lander as lifeboat
could do everything it wasn’t designed to do —
like them, it was supposed to go to the moon.

The nature of the adventure shifted
from the journey to the return — coming home
was the new, untried frontier
as Cronkite called the play-by-play.

To make it home, they had to resurrect
the old imperatives, re-enter the race
that had already been run and won,
they had to want to make it home

like they wanted to make it to the moon.

–Liz Ahl (originally published in Salt River Review #38, 2010)


The Last Man on the Moon

On December 11, 1972, 42 years ago, Apollo 17 landed on the moon. It was the final Apollo mission. I have long been obsessed with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions; with the space race to the moon. So obsessed, that I have a whole series of poems on this subject. It’s a series I’m still working on. Here’s one, in honor of today’s anniversary:

Last Man

            for Eugene Cernan

The politics of timing are a boon
to famous men like Armstrong who got there first.
Who knows the name of the last man on the moon?

Remember winners, the heroes of high noon,
spotlit by lucky honor, fit to burst.
The politics of timing are a boon.

History might have whistled a different tune,
or things that went badly could have gone much worse.
Who knows? The name of the last man on the moon

doesn’t inspire the awe-bedazzled swoon
of Armstrong. Strong-arm. One step in the dust.
The politics of timing are a boon

to men like him. The stories that balloon
from chance to headlines shout about who’s first.
Who knows the name of the last man? On the moon,

the footprints of Apollo are marooned,
bequeathed to the calm regard of the universe.
The politics of timing are a boon.
Who knows the name of the last man on the moon?