Thursday Poems: Questions In The Air & Falling

Hello from Turkey!

My trip thus far has not been as productive as I’d like, it’s been far too disruptive for that, and I’ve realised that as beautiful as this country is and as much as I love having seen my family here in their element, it cannot house me comfortably for the months in which I want to write. So, I’m going to fly again, this time to New York, there to spend my all in living, loving, writing.

In thinking of flying, however, I remembered that I haven’t been totally unproductive. On the flight from Dubai to Istanbul, at over 30,000 ft in the air, terrified for my life as I always am at any great height, I began to write a poem. A poem about falling. A poem about plane crashes.

I have never been so scared, ever, as at that moment. It is, I think, the most courageous thing I’ve ever done – to face my fear so directly. I almost felt as if by doing so, I was inviting the world to strike me down for my hubris, for nothing more than poetic synchronicity. And so today, I think I’ll stretch that hubris just a little further, and share what I wrote.

Questions in the Air

Think of those who fell;
were they white-knuckled
with fear, wondering if
the buoyant sky could hold them
long enough, or were they cheery
like this little girl dressed in pink
peeking over her chair at me?
She doesn’t know enough
to be afraid & I envy that absence,
that joyful trust-by-default in the world.
The plane shudders now
as if it can feel the ghost fingers
of the dead clutching at it,
or else my questions picking at
the spit-welded iron and steel holding us
afloat
so unnaturally among the papyrus clouds
which scatter in our wake, torn
like an old bride’s wedding train
come apart at last.
Think of those who fell,
even as you rise in God’s kingdom
of nothing; were they watching
a film, an episode, or the sky outside
with its endless blue curve,
its sourceless ocean of light, or
did they have their heads in a book,
lost to this world already?
Did they sleep even as the engines failed,
oblivious as the tube cracked open
like an egg, to drip its yolk into the upturned hands
of the world, onto the heads of strangers below?
Most strangely of all, did they perhaps
write a poem like this one,
doomed to never bless the page?
Did they fall, limbs akimbo,
graceful in descent as never in life,
a mad pirouette in sunlight,
thinking, even then, of the last line
before impact?
Did they trace their words in the air?
These questions shadow-flock the sky,
buffet me from every side, and I have no answer
except this: I may not be able to trust
in machines, in the intangible otherness
of invention, but I can look
at this little girl’s flushed skin,
her ripe berry bright eyes,
and feel the unassailable conviction
coursing through her blood,
the sharp edges of her joy.
She stands on her seat, looming
above us crouched men
and for a single lasting moment,
I’m no longer afraid, no longer
a man, just another poet
adrift on the wind.

*

I could leave it there, of course, but this week I also read this fabulous article in the Atlantic with Stephen King, who references James Dickey’s long poem ‘Falling’. It was too great a coincidence to pass up, so I read it, and it was absolutely wonderful. So absorbing, so wide-reaching, a poem that takes a single moment and through it expands to consider the universe and our place in it, our mortality, and identity. It does so with rich, evocative language and looping themes of life, water, the moon, and country. Do yourself a favour and check it out.

Thursday Poems: Song Book by Naomi Shihab Nye

I’m going to have to make this quick — I’ve left Sydney for a writing holiday, and I’m currently burning hours in Istanbul, so I’ve not got much time. However, I wouldn’t forgive myself if I forgot to rave about my most recent discovery/poetic love: Naomi Shihab Nye, an Arab American poet.

I came across her as I do most poems these days — through a link on Twitter, bless that chaotic jigsaw puzzle of a social media platform. Though short, this poem ‘Song Book’ is absolutely lovely. It is not a particularly original concept, being about the act of writing and its instruments, but one thing this subject will never lack is an audience: we writers are naturally obsessed with our own vocation. Obsession is the one and only determining factor in the creation of successful writers; if you are not devoted to this craft beyond all reason, how can you expect to hurdle the one million and one obstacles life will throw at you, the endless rejections, the constant miasma of fear and self-doubt and loathing?

So, we write about the subject, and we read it, too. Given that, you inevitably feel as if you have seen it all, but Nye does a wonderful job here with a combination of elegant simplicity and deft personal touches, culminating in those sensational last two lines:

but we are still adrift, floating,
thrum-full of longing layers of sound.

Just gorgeous, isn’t it? Read the whole thing here!

In all honesty, after reading that, I went on a bit of binge over at Poets.org and read a bunch of her poems. I feel like an older, wiser, female version of myself wrote this poems, such is their resonance; it’s as if the words were drawn in secret from my blood and my bones and my hope and my fear. Discovering her work has been an absolute balm, and on that note, I’ll share one more of my favourites, ‘Arabic’, which begins like this:

The man with laughing eyes stopped smiling
to say, “Until you speak Arabic,
you will not understand pain.”

Like I said, drawn in secret from my fire and my darkness, my joy and my hurt.

Naomi Shihab Nye is a wonder, and she is waiting for you to discover her — be it anew, or again.

Thursday Poems: My God, It’s Full of Stars by Tracy K. Smith

Okay, so I’m a little drunk — this is only relevant because I can’t actually remember which poem I last shared with my friend, and so in turn, I can’t share it with you, the nameless, faceless internet. 

However! I am nothing if not industrious, and so I went to the extraordinary effort of looking to the stack of books by my elbow and the top book on that shelf — Life On Mars by Tracy K. Smith. I read this collection some months ago, and I may have even blogged about it then (I can’t remember that either), but it’s still on my desk, still on top of the book pile somehow. Maybe I just always wanted it close at hand. More likely, though, it’s just laziness, pure and simple.

That said, this particular collection remains my favourite of all the poetry books I’ve read – from start to end, it is a cohesive, beautiful whole. And this poem, in particular, is exceptional, for all that it is just a single limb on this languorous body. I owe my love of it and the book it came in, to poetry editor Felicity Plunkett, I must admit, as she suggested it to me on Twitter. When I read this poem, I feel like I’m reading America, it’s so unmistakably set in that place, and within a set period of time, though it does cover some ground.

Somehow, despite being laden with pop cultural references, despite being so quintessentially American, it also frames questions and ideas that speak to our humanity as a whole, that contextualises us within the vastness of the universe. The poem itself obeys no particular formal constraint, at least not consistently, though it does favour a 3-line stanza by and large, and shines with light musical rhymes that drift in and out.

Now I’m going to shut up, and highlight my favourite part, even though that’s impossible, because it’s entirely fantastic from start to finish:

Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
 
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
 
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
 
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want to be
 
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
 
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
 
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
 
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
 
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
 
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
 
For the first time in the winter of 1959.

 

‘the frenzy of being. I want to be
one notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.’

There are not enough words for how much I fucking love that. Would that I could write something some day with that much grace, beauty and power. Maybe in a decade or two, I should be so lucky. Now, since I am full of duck and alcohol, I’m going to curl up in bed. Oh, and before I forget, go read the rest of that sensational damn poem here. (God, I hope I don’t regret writing this in the morning…Here’s hoping!)