Satellites Are Spinning: Notes on a Sun Ra Poem


On Poetry

Sun Ra, taken during the filming of Space Is the Place. Courtesy the collection of John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis.


Sun Ra, the visionary leader of the jazz ensemble he called his “Arkestra,” once submitted a manuscript of poems to a commercial publisher, receiving it back with a curt editorial comment: they seemed written in an alien language. He took it as a compliment. Like most readers of his poetry, I encountered it first in a form other than book. I wish I could say I bought those old El Saturn records with poems printed on their jackets—that would make me so cool—but I came to Sun Ra late, after he’d left the planet (in common parlance, died) in 1993. I never saw him perform live, I bought only digital versions of the Arkestra’s recordings, and I confess I never bothered reading their microtype liner notes.

Sun Ra’s poetry remained unknown to me until I heard it late one night. I was watching that glorious low-budget science-fiction blaxploitation docudrama, Space Is the Place (1974): The pulsating orange spaceship carrying Sun Ra and the Arkestra to planet Earth has just landed. Wearing a Pharaoh’s headdress, Sun Ra speaks quietly about music as “another kind of language,” not alien but concerned with other worlds. Cut to June Tyson, his favored vocalist, head wrapped in gold netting, eyes shaded by bronze aviators, mouth smiling as she sings, in silver tones, “The Satellites Are Spinning,” by Sun Ra:

The satellites are spinning
A new day is dawning
The galaxies are waiting
For planet Earth’s awakening

Oh we sing this song to
A brave tomorrow.
Oh we sing this song to
Abolish sorrow.

The satellites are spinning
A better day is breaking
The galaxies are waiting
For planet Earth’s awakening.

This stirring song got stuck in my head. I learned only later that it was a poem, too, or became one when printed in the self-declared “complete” collection of Sun Ra’s poetry, The Immeasurable Equation. In print, the song becomes a poem about how to sing the poem that is this song. To this day, I can’t read it without hearing Tyson’s sempiternal voice. Poetry becomes music: Sun Ra’s poetry makes words sound.

But not for everyone, or not for everyone in the same way. People believe that poetry is inclusive, that everybody has equal access to its meaning. Witness the poem you’ve just read: its message of awakening seems open to all. But watching and hearing Tyson sing it in the film made me feel uneasy, as if revelation, like money and misery, were unevenly distributed. My discomfort arose partly from Sun Ra’s hints about how to take the song: his music, he says just before Tyson sings, is “another kind of language … speaking things of blackness, about the void, the endless void, the bottomless pit surrounding you.” Coming after the word “blackness,” “you,” I sensed, did not include me. I’m no existentialist. I’m just a white guy, graduate educated and middle class. Sun Ra identifies the void with blackness, and what did I know of that?

Not much. Blackness does not color my experience as an inhabitant of either America or planet Earth. As I listened, I felt more and more estranged from the song. Tyson did not sing for me. The awakening her singing solicits does not include my sweet white self. This estrangement strikes me now as no small thing for a poem to inspire. White people generally assume everything speaks to and for them: Poems are timeless. Truths are universal. At the apocalypse, they’ll be right up front, credit cards out and ready to book the best rooms. But here was Tyson, black and alive with song, making it difficult for whites—for me—to enter the kingdom, if not of heaven exactly, then of some “better,” because blacker, “day.”

Nothing about the poem on the page expresses this racial divide. But almost everything about its performance does. Print, apparently, goes easy on white readers, allowing them to read from the perspective of their privilege. A language that “speaks things of blackness” can see print, obviously, but maybe it loses something in the process, like the sound of the void. (Let those who have ears hear.)

What I heard in Sun Ra’s poem, apart from the blackness I was mostly deaf to anyway, was a puckish spirit at play with familiar facts and fictions. This song was about satellites! I’d read a lot of poetry in graduate school, but none of it mentioned the technologies of my space-age childhood. No lyrics to Redstone rockets. No iambics on microcircuitry. About a year before I was born, Sputnik I first orbited the Earth, awakening a sleeping planet to the dawn of a new age, the space age. Along comes Sun Ra, a black musician on the South Side of Chicago, using the language of space probes and science fiction to speak—and sing—“things of blackness.” His poetry scrawls a black subtext across the Technicolor covers of the sci-fi pulps. His songs challenge their geek readership to imagine a better, blacker world. Satellites are spinning. Galaxies are waiting. Planet Earth must awaken to the breaking of a better day. The Great American Moon Shot looks pale in comparison, a colonialist fantasy for underachieving earthlings.

So who sings with Sun Ra? Tyson does not sing alone: “Oh we sing this song to / a brave tomorrow. / Oh we sing this song to / Abolish sorrow.” Who is the “we” singing? In Space Is the Place, it’s the Arkestra, Sun Ra’s ensemble of space-age afronauts. Is it possible for white people like me to join their chorus? When I first heard Sun Ra’s song, it left me feeling bereft of that brave tomorrow. And maybe that’s as it should be. I can’t claim it for my own. But watching Space Is the Place to the end, I found reason, however small, for hope: Sun Ra leaves planet Earth in the company of people capable of sharing his vision. In conversation, he once confessed that in a scene cut from the film to appease the NAACP, he included whites on his departing spaceship, too. How might white people like me learn to hear music—to read poetry—that speaks of blackness? Perhaps it’s possible to become not black, but, in the words of “The Outer Darkness,” another Sun Ra poem, “black in spirit.” Can we, together with June Tyson, “sing this song to / Abolish sorrow”?


Paul Youngquist is the author of four books, most recently A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism. He teaches English at the University of Colorado Boulder.