ELC: The Universal Flood by Eric Westerlind

“I am Ernesto Luis Cardeñia, Argentine poet, an early dreamer. I sit at the edge and describe. The planes beyond, believe me—the disjunct in time here is huge at the edge of man’s space, where the wildness has been made farm and the farm has been made city and the city is dead within. Ah, our amniotic tastes ruin it.

My blood is easy and loose. My death is easy. ‘Poet Ernesto Luis Cardeñia is charged with poetic research on the surface of Mars. He studies the dung beetle and the prisoner. His final poems are addled and incoherent as though he’d become rabid; as if something were devouring him. He wrote, autobiographically, this description of himself.’”

– Forward to Thus Follows the Course of Empire, by Ernesto Luis Cardeñia

Cardeñia, the Universal Flood

I’d find it hard to describe the fate of an entire colony since each person within it suffers a version of the more macroscopic colonial tract. Poets are the kernel inside mankind, neither occupied nor at rest, and an excellent specimen for understanding the range of human behavior in a new environment. Suffice to find representative host for the group in Ernesto Luis Cardeñia, first Poet Laureate of Mars; self-described ‘ambassador to the animal’—elect for his blended heritage so full of the blood of Indians, Catalans, and French, all three flags which waved through that Mars mission. The chalk of his poetry will blow away—it is not particularly good—but perhaps my inking it a bit blacker here will carry it another hundred years, when some similar scholar with a fascination for characters in the heat of it will find these bits, extend the empiricisms a touch further into the reaches of space or time.

Cardeñia … best to understand he was not the initial choice for Poet Ambassador; rather his mentor, frail Samantha Elaine, poetic liaison to the scientific community of Antarctica was first solicited—but for her, a three-year space journey was out of the question. This second-placing plagued Cardeñia, whose initial and intermediary work was often rife with self-doubt—”as ice, here, most likely / better serve / than my shabby cages”— the sediment of which was hardly worth journaling much less publicizing. Images of his meeting with Lieutenant Jae Horhoben are littered throughout space journals—on Slashdot, space logs, and the like; photos of the two men in well-matched colors, profiling Cardeñia’s long forehead, wavery hairline and trim mustache etched against the Lieutenant’s grim Dutch mug. I stare at it often. He seems bent like a crow.

“All actions that are engined by man are a reflection of what occurs without”—so Cardeñia wrote after shaking hands with the titanic Lieutenant, and this relationship too would spore his poetics, reflections largely on the relationship of Art alongside the Militant. Cardeñia writes in backlogged journals: “Driven by the torturous spin of the planets, life itches to move. Contained too long in its own boundaries, Man elects to send groups of itself just as a plant might a new shoot, to vacant and accessible territories. Largely this is driven by uniformity, and uniformity issues uniform, and each man and woman on this sporecraft wear one except me.” Cardeñia adapted to space travel adroitly during his three-year space crossing—simple mechanics and engineering, easy medical and cautionary exercise behaviors. Animals onboard took a particular liking to his long periods of attention and a bulk of his work was structured around the creatures, writing of their respective responses to the climate of the new world. I won’t hide that the  mission, like all missions, was to end eventually: life in its individual iterations is a temporary thing, so I offer that what intrigues me about Cardeñia in relation to the disastrous mission is his fascination with the indefatigable urge to repeat cycles. He describes in The Inurgency of the Wave:

There’s a river    winds on    forever.
Banks, turns; banks, turns.

There is a sea on either side, one
filled with chunk of ice, one
with ember & char of ship

Scream, black gullet,    This
ship at one end is made wooden
by the times;
                                         expect the same at the other,
                                        of course—

But expect change, either way.

Make no mistake, Cardeñia was a failed poet by rubric of Earth-before-Mars. He wrote in a tiny hand and only in green, which he found illegible to the point that many of his transcriptions were mis-written from their initial writing. But knowing that his texts have changed over time, are not verbatim, is perhaps particular to all writers, including this one and those early days in the Martian wild were—in an easy parallel—the at-times illegible glyphs that would be misread as Colony 1’s rough draft. The obscurer moments, the day-to-day tragedies which historians remember as unsettling and as the hinge-points towards the Colony’s collapse, allow Cardeñia’s story its perverse doubling. The airlock collapse that cost the colony many of the newborns; the realities of the red soil’s geology preventing Earthen plant growth, the ocular diseases that left many of the outdoor workers—excavators, land-scouts, developers—without eyesight—much of that we get back in data footage from the time, rather than the oblique pen of the Poet. But it transpired that the rough and wild world eventually became the tunnel structure we now see on display at the Kennedy Space Center, cited by then-US-President Obama as ‘one of the greatest engineering adventures’ of his time. Would it be that the headquarters built under the surface could beat back across a lauding.

Instead, we have the Poet’s metaphors. From Chitinyphus:

The beetle, dapper in a rolled success
rests too long at the side of its Mountain.
Ball of matte brown, beside.
A real soldier. A real work. Sun on forehead.    Lean.

                                                        let me be, I think he thinks
and I think.         Then it rolls down hill,
lump of all exercise,            oh!—he scuttles—
oh—oh.                                       I can just
watch the whole of it, knowing inside this oxygen,
we’re oh!-ing the same,
collecting shit at the base of a hill
where we’d rest if we could
but can’t,                driven incalculably up as down

The colony was designed rudimentary at first. Small sun-powered excavators dug the walls and trenches were thrice-layered by exo-, insulation, and an easy manner of tarping and tarring to store light from the massive solar-blooms buried in the floor of each corridor. It took a six-week ‘sprint’ after initial landing before oxygen in three main chambers was on and flowing; whole heat took the bulk of the next. There were eleven-hundred colonists. Little was on schedule. The few children that were brought proved sickly, and a single channel for communication home was available with response expected months later. Rock was broken and reconstituted in a variety of structures, mostly canals, which rooted out of the exposed crater lands south of Colony 1. The second supply ship was a week late but landed with food and extra generators. Long, taxing days.

The colony, tiny and flagging, saw nightly sermons by the Lieutenant and his seconds, reflective of pre-storm pulpit pounding by the clerics of the early North East. This is not, however, the story of Powhatan; the Tsenacommacah. There is no associative ‘Stranger’ that arrived from the dark surface of Mars. People were grown to believe it possible of course—we are all students of dreams—but the truth is, exposed to the wilds, the Stranger is more formed of an interior thing. Several engineers attempted to flee the colony for other sites, staging a coup that the Lieutenant and his military had to shut abruptly at the loss of several of the new tractors. The men and women attempting secession were caged. Then, a variety of other ills, but Cardeñia highlights an essentially faith-driven insight into the event that triggered the small colony’s transformation, its ‘rooting’ so to speak:

“We are a thousand now: I surrender this census to ink, suggesting for each person a thousand stories, so a thousand thousand stories, that start tonight—tonight our next is being born in the room adjacent—and given her mother’s infinite strength and what I can make out through these walls, she’ll survive and break our millennium and long wait for the First.”

Cardeñia’s marked belief in the arcane structure of numbers only mask a probably-real excitement over the birth of the first true Martian child by 2nd Ltnt. Jan Remo and her partner Sgt. Renee Rodriguez. Nearly a year from first landing, the child’s birth and incredible vigor was an antidote to the dark passings and the colonies short, current history. There would come small festivals as resource allowed, and renewed investment in the mining and resource gathering.  The tiny baby was nicknamed Prime, real name Annabelle Remo-Rodriguez.

A C1-comm tape fell into my my lap as I was preparing Cardeñia’s revitalized “Insurgency, Agency” for re-press—a data-log that a young Thorne Wolfe in his early philanthropy and fascination with the rise of commercial spacefaring had bought by accident in a bulk auction at the old Vulcan Enterprises. He said to me, “Westerlind, you’ll be able to make this out better than I.”

I had never expected to see Cardeñia so personally. He had on a white face-mask up over his head and his stubble was chalked, his face brown with mud and sweat; he described a number of things: the wife I’d never heard of on Earth, an Alienation he kept describing as though it were capitalized as I’ve done—and then a detail that I scrabbled to my stack of reference material to validate. Within a set of printed PDF’s (I can’t abide as many screens I have; everything must be paper or it is not real) it seems Cardeñia signed himself over:

“In order that the Poet Ambassador render the experience as absolute response of Creation to Landscape [I’d later find the definition of Landscape quite piquing], s/he is to have no outbound or inbound relation considered Familial, here defined as ‘in the interest of reproduction or preservation of what has been produced through human coitus.’”

Cardeñia had committed to celibate life for the length of his stay on Mars, and the scope of the project defined in the same contract was fifty years. He was 31 on the date of this illicit recording to his wife, 12:04am on a dark night in the Martian summer.

It’s only data like this that pique me because when else will I have an opportunity to draw a reader into discussion on the validity of sexless studies of landscape to achieve some undefined Objective Art or Perfect Rendering? Is it possible? How could this not color his texts as he watched the women and men of his tenacious colony begin to make lives around him? Plots outside the octagonal structure were bought; men and women developed streets and recreational areas. Lesser privacy became a thing. Witness this need for separation from the communal transform into—for lack of a more astounding choice analogy—a Martian suburbia. The emergence of a second-class class (surviving children of the seceders were never seen as anything but scorned¹) instigated the military men and women under fresh-minted Lieutenant Dan Tilson, to move outside the Colony 1 center where most worked, “in search of peace²”. Doesn’t Cardeñia’s end suddenly seem a touch sensical?

Engineering outposts developed between settlement pods, industrial picked up the slack, and ships began to arrive yearly with supplies. Thirty-five years after the birth of Prime, the second wave of colonists arrived on three massive carriers named Shemayim, Mark I through III. A tree was etched into each hull.

Cardeñia’s home was a two-tiered affair which, as an original colonist, was granted heritage status. It was modified but never to be demolished. It was nearby the zoo, which was designed originally for restriction and experiment, then for education of newcomers. As Cardeñia was close and largely unemployed, a block of his poems that would be privately shared as ‘Bad Zoo’, were written there. He took that the zoo was “a place to reflect on the interior, infinitely caged in cages within cages…” His poem, Ursia, is brief and dedicated to his wife:

‘Shroud’, she says.
                                      ‘Shroud’, she says
                                                                          ‘Shroud!’ she says louder

And all the while
looking into herself for death.³

I even bring the building up at all to remind myself that its infrastructure is an inherent, even essential, identifier of the human—a man’s mind is the zoo of his body. As Colony 1 caged what it had been—the Earth animals first and the seceders and criminals since—it grew out into the world that it consumed like rings of a planet, civilization gapping periodically with the raw or the wild. Cardeñia and myself feel this raw, wild Stranger within. Those nearest the end of their means, whether witless or deeply grieved; the oldest or youngest; are nearest to wild. How unrestrained they are by dictated Rules. “The animal is confirmed as the last understandable link to nature because we are unable to know plants beyond observation,” Cardeñia continued in his journals. He grew steadily removed; then was found a week before the night in a bubbled garden, backyard of Ltnt. Tilson’s home, frothing and speaking in tones that bordered on sorrowful.  He was arrested and spent three days in the zoo himself. This copy of his contract suggested that in four years, he would be aboard the returning Shemayim III, among the resource of gas and rock and liquid, bound for an Earth he wouldn’t recognize; and yet that day happened—the one that folds his forking path into a simple line; the day he is referenced for, if at all, among the few or literary who recall his tenuous attachment to the greater human strand.

It was a sunny day; the geothermals settled in soundless respite. The boxwoods lining the streets were their best green, and among the city, a sense of summoning to outdoors percolated. Many families went into the dunes in carts, set up their bubbles, and watched the distant skies mass in grey and blue swirls. These children didn’t know clouds as soft rolling things: they were towering and wavy, like a curtain breaking into static.  Cardeñia was in his kitchen. He’d removed his shirt-clothes to inspect a peculiar shape grown onto his stomach. Let me add that this is speculative—what we have in fact are the two data streams that show him exiting his residency bleeding, and the widely circulated footage of him at the zoo, but in the interest of bridging his world with this one, I posit the readings I’ve made of his kitchen scriptures. He wrote them as a series, I through III. Each was dated the same as the departures of the colony vessels, though he wrote Shemayim III well before it left, perhaps acknowledging that he wouldn’t be on it. He was at his table like I am now, writing his small journal entry as he was in the habit of, before writing poetry.

“I change locations. A kitchen accident—a knife slips and enters a foot. A hand goes down into the disposal. The egg cracks as it enters the pot, to be boil’d. Culinary accidents. Somehow unexciting. What is deliberate in a kitchen, because, the opposite of accident? I deliberately place an item on the stove. I deliberately set a timer to a certain temperature. 400° F is not 425°. I set the time too. 12:14AM—the power has just gone out. I’m on Mars. This place is an arid jungle. It is a forest. It was colonized and now it’s a garden and now what? I keep trying to set the time to Earth time, keep checking my watch and the two can’t marry. The blood is easy and loose.”

Shemayim III, the poem, thematically antagonizes how the great irk of man—and what drives him and her to make the unreal real or the idea ink—is that the wail of their being at the inner boundaries that keep it contained forces them to move, and after all this movement, settle back to stasis. It was the three days behind bars after that night in the garden, they said, that led him to further conjecture that an end must come, and that it must come from “the kernel, core”. Cardeñia had dropped a knife from four feet, the edge of his cabinetry, and crucified his foot. He set down his pen and the blood pooled in his loose shoe and he opened, exited, and closed his front door, walking to the zoo. So familiar to the keepers who kept the place in line, it was easy work to begin unlocking the cages and freeing those within, until in the chaos of those last moments, he would imagine himself with a horrible cry “The Universal Flood!”, even as he was beaten and killed by the men, women, and animals he freed, so desperate their escape.

¹Poc Honto’s fascinating book ‘Sons of Secession’ surveys his grandfather Joe Honto’s accounts of the time: “As it was then, they painted us red, because the blood that wove through them was invisible. They wanted us gone, when we’d just arrived. If they drenched our women and babies in red, we too would be invisible in their blood-red-vision, and then they could have all the hills, alone.”

²1st Major Chancel Jerome’s biopic’s “Debriefing Mars” describes Tilson as pseudo-religious, and somewhat unkind. Fingers can be pointed, but the result is the same.

³ A rough draft of the piece I found in one of his notebooks has the following lines that were presumably edited from the piece, with the word ‘WHY’ in Cardeñia’s capital green:

Warm as an oven
glowing bone casket.
Only the one flower here.


BIO: Eric Westerlind serves the SHARKPACK & Fathom Books as a contributor and website-builder-type. He plans to fill the archives of the now-dusty Bacon Review with stuff he has edited and published. An ongoing periodic story of his is being published in its parts at Yellow Rabbits, and the big project consuming his attention is Ugo, the audio of whom’s rough draft makes him shake to share for how young he was when all that started.

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