Reviewed by Emily Banks
In Jessica Rae Bergamino's cleverly-titled Unmanned, the future is decidedly femme. With these tight, lyrical, inventive poems, Bergamino pushes the boundaries of identification, agency, and the ethics of exploration. Throughout the collection, which imagines Voyager One and Voyager Two as queer femmes in an increasingly-distant relationship, Bergamino's strikingly deliberate use of gendered language to describe the space probes invites readers to consider what it means to be a woman in uncharted territories. As the spaces that the probes explore defy the confinements of earthly physics, their own bodies—mechanical, yet programmed to represent humanity—defy commonplace understandings of embodied identity. While exploring the secrets of the universe, the robots-as-women grapple with their own self-definitions as well as with the problematics of their colonizing mission. Bergamino deftly grapples with the ambiguity of their human qualities and their reality as programmed devices. We see the wonder of interstellar possibilities as well as the loneliness of exploration and, in many cases, reoccurrences of the same gendered problems we should have left back on earth.
In "Occulation," Voyager Two tells us, "-my girlhood / is the only thing that has ever belong to me." Her repeated claiming of femininity signals a new way of understanding gendered identification. Her girlhood differentiates her from the cold data that produced her, but also makes her vulnerable to isolation and to gendered violence, as she finds herself "naked" in the absence of atmosphere. Voyager Two's engagements with the mythic women who fell victim to sexual assault by Jupiter/Zeus inform her understanding of femininity. Referencing the moons of Jupiter, which are named for the god's rape victims, she realizes that some girls' names "are cursed with god's / attentions—their rough touches / and channeling rage." These lines call attention to the violence against women underlying both familiar mythology and scientific discovery and suggest the disturbing possibility that space travel will enable humans to export their own deeply ingrained misogyny to new parts of the universe. They refer, as well, to the space probe herself, the "Memory ghost. Incandescent transmitter" who carries human desire in her inhuman body. The metaphor of seeking selfhood when one has been programmed with others' desires has implications for all women, robotic and otherwise.
Many of the poems in this collection allude to gendered labor, imagining the burden of being a spacecraft designed to carry a sampling of human emotions. In "Feeling Underappreciated, Voyager Two Imagines Herself as Miss Piggy," Bergamino writes:
My ship is as brutal as a body, my body
a ship. Even pigs in space are wrapped
in purple and lace, eager to explode
beneath the invisible sky of women's work.
But when it's time to play the music, time
to light the lights, it isn't enough to practice
woman, you have to learn the famous parts:
Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette, Princess Leia.
Alluding to The Muppets' "Pigs in Space," these beautifully crafted lines express frustration at the seeming inescapability of gender norms, even after leaving the planet. Conceiving of her body as a vessel, she thinks of the ways femininity is always a vessel, a container for the amalgamation of figures from myth, history, and pop culture that constitute the expectation of gender performance. The concluding line, "All strange, terrible events are welcome," which quotes Cleopatra, suggests the probe's desire to defy earthly definitions of gender as she summons catastrophic change. In "At Neptune, Voyager Two Meditates on Emotional Labor," the spacecraft, while capturing the first ever photographs of Neptune's moon Triton, describes "longing to be as inhospitable—" as her target. The Voyager, in Bergamino's vision, has the unique perspective of being able to survive in spaces where a human would perish, while containing the emotional depth of a human. In this poem, she longs for the masculine quality of inhospitability, to be free from the unique emotional work she is tasked with.
The ability to survive in uninhabitable spaces, to explore perilous new depths, is crucial to Unmanned, and carries implications for the future of (femme)inism. In the prose poem "Interstellar 8-Track," Bergamino catalogues the contents of the probes that include a woman's "brain spinning as she fell in love" and "A picture show with dancing girls framed in tinsel and fringe." It ends with, "So say there's no risk in sending women into space. Darling, we're already here." This assertion feels triumphant, as the speaker demands space—literally and figuratively—for women of all embodiments, while simultaneously pointing out that women's emotional experiences are undeniably crucial to human experience that they were included in the collection NASA hoped to convey to interstellar beings. The brain waves of a woman falling in love, which were indeed programmed into the Voyager's Golden Record, are a powerful symbol for what it means to be human and, for the robots who carry her waves, what love is when detached from its object, disembodied in outer space.
The insertion of femme, cyborg bodies into outer space is exhilarating, but Bergamino conveys with great tenderness the loneliness of this mission for the robots. In "Stellification," she writes, "-I ache inside a night / that can't stop wringing its hands," bemoaning the fate of an eternity alone in space. In "Final Frontier, Fragrant with Gardenia and Other Invasive Species," Voyager One enters interstellar space and describes:
-You slum inside
Your own cool body, your body a coffin, your going
a star on some old flag as still and empty as the moon.
Bergamino illustrates the loneliness of an interstellar mission in a way that, for me, resonates with radical feminism and queer femme identity as well as with space travel. The ache of loneliness the spacecraft expresses rings true with the experience of women whose bodies, desires, and politics push against boundaries, defying standard categories and definitions.
Bergamino mixes metaphors throughout the collection, bringing together science, mythology, literature, pop culture, and astrology in a manner that feels particularly feminist to me. Rather than privileging any of these modes of understanding over the other, she creates a universe in which they are all, at once, true—Han Solo is as important as Zeus, and astrology is as real as astronomy. Mirroring the process of selecting images and sounds that represent human society to aliens, the assemblage Bergamino creates allows us to see ourselves from a distance, disrupting the assumed (and always implicitly gendered) hierarchy that privileges certain modes of knowledge over others. In "Falling in Love with the Mad Scientist," she grapples with the masculinity of the science that, like a patriarchal god, created the Voyagers. She writes:
He says beneath the microscope
lust looks just like hydrogen
building the world from weightlessness.
Above the lens, it looks like a man
who wants to touch the sun
more than he wants to touch me.
As the poem continues, she further characterizes this masculine drive as a violent, colonizing impulse, describing Kepler who "dreamed of carving his name / in the eye of the moon his mother / was tortured for worshiping" and "six boys in Pasadena" who "blew up a tin can and called in NASA." The contrast between Kepler and his mother is particularly evocative, drawing a contrast between two different kinds of worship—one associated with women and denigrated, and the other associated with men and honored. The Voyagers, like the goddesses Bergamino alludes to throughout the collection, are created by masculine invention, but their feminine perspectives give them a unique power which makes them both more seeing and more vulnerable. The book's final section, "Excerpts from Voyager One's Private Correspondence with Carl Sagan," is organized around the zodiac, which is ironic given Sagan's dismissive view of astrology. By placing astrology, so often degraded as a feminine frivolity, in literal conversation with the scientific establishment, Bergamino troubles the hierarchy of knowledge, elevating the mythical understandings associated with women to contend with the data-driven knowledge associated with men.
Unmanned, for all the theoretical work it accomplishes, is a joy to read. Bergamino's close attention to rhyme and rhythm offers aesthetic pleasures and constantly reminds us that, for all the pain in the universe, there is still beauty. The well-researched collection contains a multitude of subtle allusions to details of the Voyagers' journeys, and it certainly benefits from multiple readings and from having a search engine handy to research references. But there is a great sense of play throughout the book, an excitement and wonder that permeates each line and brings the reader into its orbit. You will care for these space probes, feeling their vulnerability and solitude, celebrating their triumphs as they claim space and search for agency in uncharted territories.