So I wrote this admittedly brilliant little poem in a white heat on the train in to my summer job many years ago. It is one of the few poems that I only sent out once before it got published. Sometimes the magic just happens. I originally wrote it as a prose poem and that is how it was originally published. In the coming book it will appear as free verse. I like it better this way. There is more nuance with real line breaks. It is rare that I get chills reading something I wrote, but this one is special.
Flying Lessons with Amelia
I met her the day of her first crash.
The stars in my eyes reflected the flash
of the cameras, the sun kissing her
silver pocket compact. The photos,
shades of grey, didn’t do her justice.
Storm clouds only capture spring
by reversing its leaves, tearing them
away. At all altitudes she eluded capture.
In her plane, the cockpit hot with her
concentration, she parsed the spectrum for me.
You will be flying through
the chandelier of heaven. The crystal is blinding.
You must fly with eyes open. You must
be prepared for any hue. We began
with asphalt, the grey of landings and rebirths,
aged embracing arm of the runway,
creased by time, that cumulus indigo
umbrella holding us down.
Someday I will fly right through.
I was not her navigator. I did not drink.
I did not charm or exude animal scents
the pink of tongues and inner ears. I did not
read the stars for her. I read only the lessons
she gave me: airship lessons, the silk grey
skin of a winged beast she knew intimately,
silk white lessons of sky. But white had to wait.
Green followed grey, kelly pine jasper,
the mustard green tips of leaves
pawing at our uplift, the midnight green of dusk
landings, verdancy so gloomed there was no telling
landing strip from the shadow of the ship,
our wings jet branches gathering darkness in.
Ebony comes later, she laughed at my awe
as my mouth opened on this night,
whalecub learning to swallow sea.
First you must finger gold.
I never fathomed the depths of my avarice
until we flew into sun, the goggles she despised
shielding us only from its molten grasp,
not from its flames licking the edges
of things, our gauges and leather gauntlets,
the straying lock of her hair peering out
from the leather helmet. Both our noses shone,
two bloodhounds following bullioned muzzles
to the end, flying west, into noonday, solarium
studded with citrine, topaz, blinking Midas tears.
The sun veered off our wingtip, my voracity
seeping away into the stratified marble, in
to its aquamarine veins. Her wrists
when the sleeves of her leather jacket rode up.
The struts of this plane when the ivory spider
sky wove us new, a web for wind to climb
all the way into the center. Sometimes
we flew into cloud, that turbulent nothing
clawing at our wings, hissing hushed threats
to fling us down against the serrated curve of earth
She was never afraid of falling.
Another kind of flight. Another airstream
leading to another place.
Some days the clouds refused to end, pure
immortality billowing about us
like anger. But purity is illusion, she said,
a wall of water you could pierce. Open your eyes
wide. Wider. Fly right through.
Blue was her forté, azure stones
seen from distances, purple mountaintops
from above. But purple is imprecise.
Say rather, the ache that seeps into everything
unbendable. Clouds and grass lose hue
and youth as they lose the sun, growing brittle,
vanishing. When each lesson ended, she too
vanished, after paying me a smile and a slap
on the back. Alone in the hangar, I rested
my hands like wings on the Electra’s wings,
imagined myself wind, the ever-present
hand of air flinging her through space. I became
the airship singing, “I am her destiny, spinning
propeller pulling her forward. If she moves
too slowly, she will break upon my invisible blades.
If she is quick enough however—
O if she is quick—she will fly right through.”
Each time she crossed an ocean, I prayed
in glasses of water, gulping down waves, dreaming
desert. I prayed by inhaling headlines, whole
paragraphs of storm. I prayed the grey
asphalt arm reaching out to catch her.
Shallow sea. Fair winds. Safe landing.
I told her my desert dreams, the cracked argent
lips of summer singing unspeakable endings.
What does it mean, O my master?
You have not known silver until you’ve soared
between desert and a full moon. Tongue falls silent.
Music falls in sheets to the dunes, arpeggios of sand.
Nightflight was the last lesson,
a leisurely voyage down corridors of unlit coal
rubbing itself off on our wings. To become night,
you must let go of everything. Every time
you embrace it, you must empty your pockets
and hands. Plunging into cold volcanic depths of
sky requires valor, resolute defiance of the grip
of blindness pressed against your eyes, of the lure
of the stars you cannot fly to. Nothing.
Nothing can save you here, nothing
but the Electra beneath her tan hands
with their raised blue veins, nothing but
the changing tint of grey in the curtained cloud,
penumbra lightening in blinks of tired dark eyes.
Night was not time but distance, an endless road
winding through itself and more of itself,
narrowing as I nodded and fought to wake.
You sleep from fear, but someday you will keep
this vigil too, in the long tunnel toward morning.
Never in her lifetime could I keep that vigil
whole, a faithful watchman, never
until her last flight, without me,
when she slammed into sea
the way I always slammed into quartz white
day, facetted and sparking seed-suns to burn
and stab our eyes. There is a place called horizon
where gold and deep blue lie down together, fuse.
The nose of my Electra aims to be a point
upon that line. When I fly now, years later
without her, I am always flying right through.
Spilecki, Susan. “Flying Lessons with Amelia,” Quarter After Eight 5. Fall 1998.