This week in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Heather Christle features a poem by Lesley Yalen. About Yalen’s work, Christle writes: “In her magnificent essay, “Why I Write,” Joy Williams posits that “The writer writes to serve — hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve — not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace which knows us.” I find myself circling back again and again to this idea—orbiting it—when reading Lesley Yalen’s ‘Sea of Tranquility.’ Maybe that’s because I am feeling the chill of the moon’s surface, or the chill of history. Maybe it’s the grace with which Yalen directs attention from the moon to its light reflecting on earthly events. And certainly there is something in this poem that knows us, that sees this nation’s faults and families, our pride and paralysis. It’s been forty-five years since the moon landed on us, and today I am happy to share in this poem’s first leap into public air.”

Sea of Tranquility


The need for new imagery and

A near-disaster

In the structure of a neighborhood

Far from the mass gross 

Absence of sound.

I was not above feeling “we’ve made it” 

As the rocket escaped the nag of gravity

The old neighborhood blackened out 

And so invisible from the moon


The Earth from the walked-on moon 

Like your face as seen from mine

Not even hiding their pride 

When the astronaut plants the flag.

No one refrains from repeating the gesture forever.

New York as seen from a plane 

Writing its name in the sky.

What once appeared to be litter is revealed

As a series of glacial deposits 

Artists have doctored 


Back on Earth, Earth is ugly 

The city falls asleep atop itself 

In milkweed drifts 

And Bubbie is gone. 

They say 

A lone gunman got the moon 

But was it 

The moon we suspected? 

We try to donate this moon to 

The Indians but they refuse its racist artwork 

And grudging life-forms. The third astronaut 

Said the moon’s surface was too pliant or firm 

Or too low to see landmarks and 

Our exact position was not at first known


My mother says we never had a milkman

Then who was that guy

That guy who brought something white and glass

And what was that sound

When you told me about slavery

It was glass breaking or change dropping

It was dimes dropping and the servants bowed.

(We never had servants!) 

Then who was that guy

Standing at the skirt of an exchange


From the moon, can we reshape the tide

For ideal oyster beds and shad? 

Fix the scoliotic necks and coves?

The drag on this rocket is like 

Anything pulling back 

There is resistance 

There is inertia to keep us from going

And inertia to keep us going


Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).