Andrew Burke

Boarding cards

were the ultimate bookmarks –

you were issued one before you left

and when you woke somewhere between

here and Frankfurt they reminded you

at bleary breakfast that Fiona

had just been cornered in a grimy basement

and you were winging now over Romania

and would be free in two hours.

From an unpublished poem Vanishing Species by Andrew Taylor. This poem is a wonderful example of a new breed of poem which has grown up since the Wright Brothers took to the air. When people say there is nothing new for poetry to say – love, death, birth, beauty, evil – all the themes have been exhausted – I point to this, this very modern theme of flight travel.

I have returned recently from the Tasmanian Poetry Festival, which was a warm-hearted and very sociable event. The poets who gathered there flew in from different corners of Australia: Darwin, Brisbane, Perth, Sydney and Melbourne – I wonder how many flight poems we will read from that event? After that event, I flew to Hong Kong for a cricket international event called the Hong Kong Sixes. I kept a notebook all the way, gathering thoughts to be hammered into shape later. And now I have driven 3.5 hours down south – akin to Gabriel Gudding’s long driving poem, only I can’t drive and write at the same time! My notebook is back at home, damnit. But I have a wonderful poem here from a poet who writes many a flight poem – Dennis Haskell. Here he is taking off from Hong Kong airport:

After Hong Kong from his collection All the Time in the World

Ground speed 500 mph on

ground that isn’t there

measurable only by noise

that arcs over every wing:

we navigate by our ears

as this horizontal stunted yacht

edges forward inch by drawn-out inch.

At 35,000 feet,

up here where our only ambience is air.

Dennis has many ‘desk’ hours in his life, busily working at the education coalface and chairing meetings, sitting on panels at festivals and the like, so flying high above the rooms of distraction would be a welcome time to write … and ‘write what’s right under your nose’ is William Carlos Williams well-known basic advice, so that’s what he writes.

David Malouf is also a disciplined writer who spends many an hour at the desk only to fly between engagements around the planet. It can refresh a man’s eye – from Far and Near, from UQP’s Poems 1959-1989:

Good in angel air to take the angels’

viewpoint, six miles over the earth and its incident uneasy shadows, breaking away

from clock and tide, and higher

than geeseflocks, to catch

at a glance what Marco Polo took

a lifetime to discover and slow tribesmen centuries

to cross, come to terms with; (…)

I’ve flown over the ancient Australian landscape many times, dry and various as it seems. Here Malouf seems to be viewing a colder scape, not older – Australia has the second oldest landmass on Earth – but he sees with history-conscious eyes – from The Tapestry:

The landscape warps with cold,

as stones the first ice age

set down here are hefted

across centuries to make

walls over hills and windswept upland spaces

for pasture. …

Let Malouf’s Far and Near bring us down to earth here again:

… A flair for technology and faith is what keeps us

above earth’s instant muddle, but never far and not for long.

I could quote and go on, but these poems are not simply travelogues: they bring us to a fresh view of the planet we tread, a new perspective – from Appolinaire’s Zone where planes, a new invention then, circle the Eiffel Tower, equally new and wondrous, through Berryman’s The greens of the Ganges delta foliate Dream Song, to science fiction poems of rockets to other planets.

One of the saddest poems of this sub-genre is Homecoming by Bruce Dawe, a descriptive poem of bringing the war dead home from Vietnam:

… on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut

the noble jets are whining like hounds,

they are bringing them home

– curly-heads, kinky-hairs, crew-cuts, balding non-coms
– they’re high, now, high and higher, over the land, the steaming chow mein
their shadows are tracing the blue curve of the Pacific
with sorrowful quick fingers, heading south, heading east,
home, home, home – and the coasts swing upward, the old ridiculous curvatures
of earth, the knuckled hills, the mangrove-swamps, the desert emptiness …

Now we are bringing them home from Afghanistan. On the upside, Americans and Russians are co-operating in space travel research. The world’s a never-ending changing platform.

In my research for this posting, I accidently came across a flight poem by Robert Graves, which is a perfect note to finish on:

Flying Crooked

The butterfly, the cabbage white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has — who knows so well as I? —
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

— Robert Graves, 1938

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