Across the Heavens: Christopher Cokinos’ The Fallen Sky

For over a year Christopher Cokinos’ The Fallen Sky sat on the shelf and stared me down. Its subtitle, An Intimate History of Shooting Stars was intimidating, backed as it was by over five hundred pages. I am fascinated by our solar system and the many objects it contains, but even I wasn’t sure I was could tackle such an in-depth discussion of lumps of rock and metal. Eventually though I overcame my fear and enticed it off the shelf, ready to embark on the expected detailed discussion of the detritus of the solar system.

I was wrong to fear this book. Wrong because any discussion about meteors was always going to be about so much more than rocks. And wrong simply because I had misread the title.

it is not the rocks that matter, but how we see them

Cokinos hasn’t written a history of meteors. He has written an intimate history of shootings stars. That little variation makes all the difference, and reveals Cokinos’ talent in bending language just so to make his point. Cokinos has chosen the poetic name for a scientific phenomenon because it is not the rocks that matter, but how we see them.

For as long as I can remember I knew that the streaks of light in the night’s sky were small rocks from space burning up in the atmosphere. I knew too that sometimes larger rocks hurtled out of the void and impacted earth. What I didn’t understand, until Cokinos showed me, was how strange, how absurd, how alien, the idea of these falling rocks was for most of human history. For those in our past, the universe was static, and the heavens mapped. There was nothing up there to fall. Yet fall it did. How confronting a reality it must have been to have the sky crash through your roof. Cokinos paints with glee the mythology of meteorites, from Siberian belief that they are blood sucking fire worms to a mind boggling variation of excursions by the gods. Colourful does not begin to describe the history of these rocks.

The other twist that I’d missed in Cokinos’ title was that he has not written a general history, but an intimate one. And despite first impressions it is intimate not in its study of the shooting stars, but of Cokinos himself. With the mythology of his subject inscribed in the opening pages, Cokinos sets off to follow the footsteps of the early discoverers of meteors. I believe Cokinos did intend to write a book on meteors and the people who have sought them, but he ended up writing a much more personal story, that of his own journey to understand these pieces of fallen sky.

despite first impressions it is intimate not in its study of the shooting stars, but of Cokinos himself

Meteors, and meteor hunters past and present, make up the landscape of The Fallen Sky, but the subject is undoubtedly Cokinos. This becomes clear within the first few chapters as details of Cokinos’ life seep into the book. As I read these early chapters I scribbled a note to myself, that it was difficult to know at that stage whether The Fallen Sky was about the journey of meteors to earth, or Cokinos’ own journey away from the collapse of his first marriage. It soon became clear that The Fallen Sky is both, and against all odds it works wonderfully. Cokinos is first and foremost a poet and it shows. The Fallen Sky finds its feet as an epic poem dancing across our minds as its subject dance across the sky.

As he emerges from the shattered remains of his marriage and begins to move towards his new life Cokinos speeds across the globe, to Mexico, to France, to Greenland. He is in pursuit of famous meteors and the eclectic cast of characters who sought, catalogued, and sold them. Cokinos’ poetry resonates throughout. His quest to visit the famous Cape York meteors on Greenland’s West Coast, which gave generations of Inuit iron arrows before the rocks were plundered by American arctic explorer Robert Peary, is particularly striking, and conjures memories of Miss Smilla’s unfinished encounter with a fallen star on the same coast.

Cokinos speeds across the globe, to Mexico, to France, to Greenland. He is in pursuit of famous meteors and the eclectic cast of characters who sought, catalogued, and sold them.

Then, in the last quarter, the book transforms again. Cokinos is building a relationship with a woman with whom he finds himself at peace. This gives him a new coherency just in time for him to embark on his greatest journey: to the southern ice. Suddenly The Fallen Sky is a travel book with Cokinos front and centre on an Antarctic expedition to recover meteorites. Where before history leapt along in the tales of past enthusiasts, Cokinos now describes his journey in minute, intimate, detail. I am not sure if he knows it, but he had become one of those whose tales he so recently told.

Just last week I damned Niven and Purnelle for daring to write Footfall only for themselves. Cokinos wrote The Fallen Sky for himself too: it was a journey Cokinos’ needed to make, an odyssey to make him whole again. The resulting work however, carries none of Niven and Purnelle’s self-indulgence. It is enlightening, entrancing, and entertaining. The small community of meteor hunters, collectors, and enthusiasts will adore The Fallen Sky, for it embodies one of their own. But despite my initial fears as this book stared down from its high perch, its audience is broad. This book is for those whose curiosity stretches to the heavens, for those who can see their own personal journey reflected in the journeys of others, and for those who know that even in this modern world of ours there is purpose to be found in a quest.

-H