Featured Poem: Lighter-Than-Air

Thank you for visiting my site. I have added more work to Publications Gallery and a link to the River Road Readings site on News & Events. This page features the poem Lighter-Than-Air.

 

Lighter-Than-Air

So this experiment proves the reality of the mind.

                                                  –Virginia Woolf

I. The Airship Akron. Camp Kearney, California, 1932

Out of the clouds the dream
descends;
the ground crew only stares.

how much more surprising is

 
This ship owns the sky, their sky. Whose mind
would not embrace, out the fear
that makes men love,
such power.

the force that does not kill,
that is, that does not kill
just yet.

Duty takes hold at last:
trail ropes, swaying, drop
from the dirigible, are tied to spiders
with wooden hands that earthbound sailors grasp.

Through crystals of fog, sunlight
swells the helium, the great ship
heaves upward—Let her go—

but three men
still cling to the guide.
As the Akron rises,
they rise, and higher,
until the ground sees only
three drops of blood along a string.

It will surely kill,

The body obeys:
first the words, grab those lines,
then the ship, reining skyward.
Now fear

will possibly kill,

turns one man to stone. He plummets. After him
another, knowing only
pain, lets go; his freed arms
scissor the air.

or it merely hangs, poised and ready,
              over the head of the creature

 
The third man grips a crosspiece, rides
a nest of tangled ropes. I’m
here. All he knows, not

it can kill at any moment,

that to the machine
everything is equal: sky, earth, flesh,

the way the men aboard
must work to keep the balance.

which is to say at every moment.
      Its effect is the same:

He watches the dream silver
above his head. At last he is lifted
within, winched by the crew through a porthole
into the belly of

what might have killed him

it turns a man into a stone

saves him.

The epigraph is taken from Virginia Woolf’s wartime diary.

In this section, passages in quotation are from Simone Weil’s essay, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.

 

 

 

The following stanzas are excerpted from a longer second section.

II. Invention

….A man more alone

could not so easily
turn from desire.
As a boy in Brazil, Santos-Dumont
watches silk-paper balloons
rise on air heated by St. John’s Eve bonfires;
all night he sails with them

to Paris 1900, to see new things.
For his first balloon ascent, he packs a lunch of
hard-boiled eggs, cold roast beef and chicken,
cheese, ice cream, fruits and cakes,
Champagne, coffee, and Chartreuse. Crystals

of ice form on his wineglass
as a country church rings the Angelus, but
the human voice cannot mount up
into these boundless solitudes
.

Back in Paris,
he straps a petroleum motor and basket
to a cigar-shaped envelope of Japanese silk
and navigates the air.
I am a steamboat captain,

the air is full
of varying currents like a river, and I
can leave one current for another.
There are none

of the shocks and hesitations
of the boat at sea
rising out of the water
to plunge into it again.
The airship never leaves its medium.

Held to the plane of the earth
our minds remain always
on the plane surface
even while our bodies may be mounting.

Aerial navigation affords us
the delight, the wonder, and the intoxication of
free diagonal movement

onward and upward or onward and downward.

The birds have this sensation
when they spread their wings
and go tobogganing
in curves and spirals through the sky.

Santos-Dumont builds fourteen airships, each one named
for himself. When No. 5
spills into a chestnut tree
near the house of Princess Isabel, Comtesse d’Eu,
she sends lunch to him in his tree
and bestows upon him
a medal of St. Benedict

he wears on a thin gold bracelet the day
he wins the Deutsch Prize, twenty-nine minutes
on a course from St. Cloud,
’round the Eiffel Tower,
over the trees of the Bois, whose soft greenery
always reassured me,

and back to the judges assembled at St. Cloud.
He divides the prize money between
his workers and the deserving poor.

Aida de Acosta, the only woman
to solo a dirigible, pilots No. 9,
the runabout

in which Santos-Dumont tours
the rooftops of Paris, chimney pots and steeples,
to his own house for morning coffee.
He sees, from his bay window,

airships, become as common
as automobiles. He has invented
what makes possible

the Zeppelin
raids over Hull and Sheffield,
the Great War. On a moonless night
they loom huge as battleships.

One is alone in the black void
yet now and again we see a point
far ahead, then where there was one
blaze, there are countless
bright spots. We know
that it is a city

The Zeppelins bomb wherever there is light.

After that war
each triumphant navy,
France, Italy, and England,
makes its own disaster, airships
that vanish, smash, spark and flame.

America’s Shenandoah, built along the lines
of a German ship, is made over
into a circus act
barnstorming Ohio. After lightning
brings her down in a field,
the curious in boaters and rolled sleeves surround
and strip her
for souvenirs; raincoats,
Shenandoah Slickers, are made from her gasbags.
On the ground
a few dashed bones remain.

At last, out of grief,
Santos-Dumont tries
to take his own life….

All quotations of Santos-Dumont are taken from his book My Airships. One is alone in the black void yet now and again we see a point far ahead, then where there was one blaze, there are countless bright spots. We know that it is a city is his description of ballooning at night.

 

 

 

III. The Christening

Will Mrs. Hoover wear blue?

No rain fell while the seamstresses
knelt before their sewing machines
on the floor of the world’s largest
hangar, so huge it could contain
the mist and thunder of the American Falls
and the Bridal Veil, but instead held

these women, piecing together gas cells, square
by square like quilts.
Some cells are made of latex, some
of goldbeater’s skin,
so the lungs of the ship
are half animal, half manmade.

On scaffolds work crews
riveted aluminum hoops ribs,
the Akron’s skeleton.
The men were used to building
what would stand;

if we are to retain our world leadership
in all respects

after stretching the fabric skin
over the frame, they painted it
so it would shine like something solid.

our airships will have to be
steadily increased in size

But without the women
how would the airship sail? Without flight
the city would not close, Amelia Earhart would
not be winging in, Mrs. Hoover
would not deign to visit—

she arrives tomorrow, August 8, 1931,
a legal holiday in Akron. The Beacon Journal
wants an interview: Will she wear
grey? She’s a Quaker, although President Hoover
likes champagne.

Hush! The head librarian
has all but given up. The children
chase up and down the library steps
flapping Welcome First Lady
banners she gave them
as if they too would sail away.

Miss Nellie Glover has written a song
as she did after the Armistice:

Akron, beautiful airship,
Speed on your way,
Akron, beautiful airship,
Greet lands far away.
May you carry the message,
‘Brotherhood of Man’;
Akron, beautiful airship
As the world you span.

Mrs. Hoover arrives by train.
The city can barely breathe, 100,000 people
in the hangar, scores of them wilting
like the lettuce on the tea sandwiches
she was served that afternoon
at the Portage Country Club.

But Lou Hoover has known worse,
having read in the papers
of her own death
during the siege of Tientsin.
Coolly she pulls a ribbon and uncorks
the Akron’s bow hatch: forty-eight homing pigeons
spray out, reckless as champagne.
I christen thee Akron. The ship rises
six feet; Mrs. Hoover has done

her duty. She missed only last evening’s
banquet, so she did not see

the simulated bombing raid
on the docked Akron
that a squadron from the carrier Langley
performed, a display of power
against power

until the limit is reached
whatever that may be
.

Rear Admiral Moffett, aloft,
quotes Longfellow on the Akron’s
maiden flight,
dines on broiled chicken and ice cream
sailing to Cleveland.

Once again he’s aboard, cruising east
over New York, Perth Amboy, and Lakehurst,
on to the capital where Mrs. Hoover
waits on the White House roof.

And now the sky becomes the sea

as Mr. Hoover on the White House lawn
looks up briefly.

Mindful, the Akron dips its bow
saluting its sponsor: Mrs. Hoover
thinks of dolphins
nosing the water off Monterey

she who is godmother
to a monster
to which Admiral Moffett and his sailors
have willed their lives.

…if we are to retain our world leadership in all respects, our airships will have to be steadily increased in size until the limit is reached, whatever that may be are the words of Rear Admiral Moffett.

 

 

 

IV. April 4, 1933: The Akron Crashes Into the Atlantic

He was a sailor
consigned to the sky. Those times
he allowed his wife
to watch him set sail

she, like the Commander’s wife,
would turn her back
as the ship rose.

So last night
as wind from the Pine Barrens
blew a strand of her hair
across her mouth, and fog
roiled up out of the center
of the earth

she turned away

in order not to see, or for luck,
or for whatever is in
the high creed of naval wives

that makes her
and the other women waiting
on the same Lakehurst field this April morning
even now believe

the Admiral has a way of coming out of things safely,
and with him, all his men.

Can she call her sailor home again? Already
smooth hands of a pastor
are working him into next Sunday’s sermon:

Men have always wanted to exhibit independence of God
by building Towers of Babel. Modern inventions
have been so marvelous—

like the canal the airship
cruised above last month in Panama
and the New England radio stations
the seventy-six went off to calibrate
yesterday evening–

that Man’s egotism has led him
to think he himself was
a self-sufficient god

with dominion over
a vessel the men called she.

Was the Akron for them a woman
or merely female, gravid
like the blond dog
the wife of the boatswain’s mate
stayed home last night to whelp,

submissive, always responding
to their word or touch—

No sailor’s wife ever walked within the airship
to decide
rival, sister, or bloodless
edifice,

although his wife would have recognized
what he’d described:

the burnished wheel that helmed the ship,
gangways leading through the vast,
heartless thorax, skin

stretched over long bones
and arcing rings, gondolas
where engines muttered, their blades
slicing the air;

she’d have known to say
frames and engine cars
because the Navy taught her
scouting cruiser, never
dreadnaught of the skies, not sick

whale. When she saw the Akron
airborne over cities
in the Sunday rotogravure
and the ship’s sunlit nose and flukes blazed,
she could tame them: bow and stern.

But standing here with the others,
her eyes never leaving the sky,
she does not long for the vessel’s return;
she thinks of his body—

how mornings his arm would pillow her head,
his caged breath rise and fall; how
striding beside him

on liberty along Manhattan’s
German thoroughfare, where men in hose
and cockaded hats

bowed customers into
their cafes—the Zeppelin, the Hindenburg—
she was alive.
Over chocolate and sweet cream
he spoke of honor
and disaster, and every syllable
she heard above
the waiters’ stomp and clatter
said love, love. She believed

his profile at the wheel
as they drove along Lansdowne Road
to the hangar the Navy
renamed the dock, just as
they’d turned the commander
of the downed Shenandoah

into a road
that led to the sky

where a storm waited
the sailors could smell. Sulfurous,
it made the air stiffen, it boomed
like the sea they knew

lay eastward. Whose voice
lured them? Admiral Moffett
insisted no man fear;
he would go with them.

Dark clouds surround them,
carry them
to the coast; lightning
slashes all their messages. The air-

ship sets sail over the water
to ride out the storm,
instead is wed
to its power, sinking into
the heart of it as

her girders buckle
and snap like spars:

the struck ship
sounds, bearing down
within her hull her men.

Off Barnegat light
the captain of the German Phoebus
sees lights above the water become
lights in the water
go dim,

hears men
call from the darkness—

At dawn the chaplain
speaks of the rescue
of three men
to the sailors’ wives gathered in the hall
where once he’d danced with her. She lays
her forehead against the ribbed arm
of a wicker settee
so her brow is marked;
she will not weep.
She will wait

for days, read the news
for his name and see it once,
see over and over
how the Akron was valued, worth millions
more than sorrow, read
how women are still wed
before bowers of lilies and roses.

and at a survivors’ press conference:

Q: Did you see Moffett?
A: The water swept me out of
his window. The sea
was so cold, and I heard
voices crying.

In the news are cables of regret
from England’s king, the new
chancellor of Germany, but
she will receive no condolences
from the Navy until beloved

Moffett, hero
of the Philippine Insurrection, the
Cuban pacification,
the World War,
the nation
can ill afford to lose such men

washes ashore
in full uniform. The nation

cannot afford
pay her and the other widows
death benefits: a second

poverty. She thinks
of her beloved, never
to be found

and how the sea, last
voice, must now heed
him, his mates,
their great ship, forever.

Much of the information in this section has been gathered from period newspaper accounts of the disaster.

…the Admiral has a way of coming out of things safely was said by Mrs. Moffett.

The nation can ill afford to lose such men are the words of President Franklin Roosevelt.

 

 

 

This section was published in The Zeppelin Reader(University of Iowa Press), edited by Robert Hedin. A link to a Michigan Quarterly Review critique of this anthology can be found on the Publications Gallery page.

 

V. Ascension Day, 1937: Pictures of an Actual Disaster

How beautiful, but for
the broken
cross on its tail, sign

of the sun
made by the ancients

conquered. Its bent hands insist:
it is time. Mark of the raptor

that cruised to Rio, blanketed
the Rhenish countryside with Goebbels’s harmonies,

now sails above New York. The ship’s
prop blades stroke the air:
this is no eagle, but a vessel
bearing a volatile
offering, lofted not by

the helium America
won’t license for export—

How do I know
it won’t ultimately be used
for war purposes?

but by hydrogen, abundant
in the sun, lightest, hottest
burning,

so paying passengers smoke their pipes
in a fire-proofed room
and without the benefit of flash
snap photos through slanting
isinglass windows. The acrobat

Ben Dova, fresh from Berlin’s Wintergarden,
trains his Bell and Howell
on the Empire State
observatory, sees himself

taken in by
aperture, iris.
The ship’s skin

like the sky-
scraper’s walls and windows

is hung on a rigid
framework no one man
could have made.

Both wonders rival

sunlight, casting steep,
willed shadows. On the ground
people follow under

the vessel’s dark hand
while in the harbor, a concert of frantic ship whistles
calls out.

LZ-129 has triumphed again, as last season
it flew above a hurricane
battering New England
and felt nothing, part of the stream

of wind. This afternoon
there are squalls westward
and no one is afraid

although Captain Lehmann, aboard
as observer, carries in his flight jacket pocket

a note warning
of sabotage: do not go
to Lakehurst
. But all luggage examined
found free of pistols, dry cells,
carrier pigeons, he tells no one.

Father to his men, hero
who commanded Zeppelin raids on England and won
the Iron Cross: if Lehmann is worried,

no one knows. Those who have traveled
hours above seas, beacons,
cities, find the ship
the one safe place
as it moves changeless through its element.

But to tear away from the earth, say the necessary
farewells! Waiting strangers
soon more alike
than those loved ones left behind,
the passengers
milled in the great darkness of the Halle at Frankfurt.
There was melancholy, someone’s
furtive look, a man with a package
held too tightly under one arm;
a muscular Alsatian strained at its lead.

As mild rain fell, the spot-lit airship bade
them. They climbed the gang,
the hatches sealed. With the ship
rose brutal

music; as if to haul them back,
Hitler Youth ran across the field beneath
the upward vanishing hull.

Calm days at sea presided over
by the glassy visage of the ship’s namesake,
his bust in its niche near the dining room
where stewards served Rhine salmon
on blue and gold porcelain. Not a
drop of wine spilled. In the cocktail bar
Ben Dova amused himself by balancing
a fountain pen on its flat end.

Heaps of soiled linens in the hallways.
The voyage is ending, passengers
redeem their postcard chits.
But unsettled

weather delays landing; when
can they leave the sky?
Captain Pruss cruises from Barnegat to Cape May and back
while black clouds drench Lakehurst.
At last they’re clear, passengers wave

as the Navy ground crew
struggles with the lines.

The unbalanced ship fights the wind.

Three blasts of the landing station siren,
and three, and three;

the ship holds still, a framed,
populated cloud
, then

just as one may experience the longest dream
in but a few seconds

was there smoke
from the engines like a backfire, a noise
like bullets coming out of the engine gondolas

did the ship’s belly glow pink, lit from within
like a Japanese lantern,

the glow spread and a ribbon of fire
race along the belly to the bow
, was the

brilliant flame

yellow, or

dark red, a mushroom-shaped
flower speedily bursting into bloom

The concussion
could have been the big guns at Fort Dix
except how the explosions gave way
to sounds of screams
, those in

the flaming, falling ship

the bow reared up, tail
smashed to the ground

absolutely had no chance

Oh the humanity and all the passengers

on the port side felt a slight tremor.
People were just curious
,
walking toward the promenade deck.
Starboard passengers saw
shocked faces of those on the ground
turned toward the ship

even in breaking up, was gentle
to its passengers—those who

could broke through, flung
themselves from the burning, but some

were in flames
as they plunged to earth

Ben Dova knocked out a pane
with his Bell and Howell.
The landing crew watched him

hurl himself from a window,
drop forty feet to the ground, get up
feeling himself
to see if he was really all there

before they returned
to the wreck to lead to safety

Lehmann, his flight jacket on fire:
I don’t understand

the figures burned black or waxen who
stumbled, fell to the sand,
stood again, gesturing for

the unreserved help of the American airmen
coming to the rescue of their German comrades

The hangar becomes a morgue

a beautiful proof of the spirit
which links airmen of all nations
.

After a swastika-decked farewell,
the German dead are freighted home.
An inquiry held in the hangar decides
not a stroke of war, not Lehmann’s
infernal machine, but an unfathomable
Act of God
, St. Elmo’s fire
killed thirty-one.
For its witnesses,
until the next, this is
one of the worst catastrophes in the world
.

Hans von Schiller, captain of the Graf Zeppelin, referred to the swastika as the sign of the sun made by the ancients.

How do I know it won’t ultimately be used for war purposes? was a question posed by Secretary of the Interior Ickes.

The phrase…part of the stream of wind appeared in an article published in The Literary Digest in 1936.

Many of the eyewitness descriptions are taken from newspaper accounts. Some of the most striking images are from What About the Airship? by Charles Rosendahl, commander of the U.S. Naval Station at Lakehurst at the time of the crash.

Hermann Goering, Commander of the Luftwaffe, spoke of…the unreserved help of the American airmen coming to the rescue of their German comrades.

 

 

VI. Babel

To be outside a situation so violent is to find it inconceivable;
to be inside is to be unable to conceive of its end
.
–Simone Weil

Send to a Perth Amboy scrapyard
what can be salvaged
from the charred Lakehurst field;

all the while the wind
carries wings of ash
for miles, beyond the Pine Barrens,

black wings that rise on heated currents
like the walls of burning
paper houses, what the dead demand

to furnish heaven. But these

are messages for the living: torn,
burnt, traveled, read
by who may understand.

The killing machine
to be set in motion

Dismantle the remaining
airships

In the presence of an armed enemy

Build radar towers
with the framework or melt it
into planes

a perfunctory slaughter
like taking a jar in one hand,
a hammer in the other

what hand
can relinquish its weapon?

Once in a green courtyard
a murmurous fountain
of birds rose
and fell on streams of air. Now

we hear
profuse unbrideled mediaeval
rain
, comfort
tapping against roof or window, but

we as usual remain outside
as the rain
soaks fields and unpaved roads.

Do we not speak
one language? We know the same

three stages of human panic.
The panic of screams

at the sound

of a blade being honed,

a young man falling,
an aeroplane
streaking down in flames

of the bombardment

two things: that each country
was convinced that the bombardments
carried out by the enemy airmen
were indiscriminate;

that each was equally convinced
its own airmen
exercised care and discrimination
in its bombardments.

The panic of flight

Ruts maze the damp earth,
wheeled carts stuck, overloaded
bicycles toppling; we were evacuated

allowed one suitcase

and I was walking
on the snow in my
bare feet and slippers
.

The panic of silence

Crouching, she rocks back and forth
as if the grief she held
were a child, but soon the black-
kerchiefed woman stands again

There was war before
and I lived through it

to bury the fallen,
their stiffened limbs crooked
heroically, like the raised
shanks on equestrian statues

And there will probably be
other wars which
we shall also live through
.

If we do not speak

paint the streetlights blue,
kill the zoo tigers; the cathedrals
are eyeless, and in galleries
where Masters hung,
concerts are played each afternoon;

so long will we find ways of adapting ourselves.

Some have exempted themselves.
Self-exiled in Brazil during her civil war
Santos-Dumont heard air battles above his garden,
son against son, the severance
that war seems to bring
,
his imaginings come to this:
burnt plans, his suicide.

A world ago, in a sky
that seems impossible now
he had cried out to those witnessing below
Let go, all

The great ships that hove
through the aerial ocean
have vanished utterly, honor
with their absence
flight’s instinctive liberty.

 

The killing machine to be set in motion, a perfunctory slaughter like taking a jar in one hand, a hammer in the other is from Virginia Woolf’s diary.

In the presence of an armed enemy, what hand can relinquish its weapon? is taken from the work of Simone Weil.

…profuse unbrideled mediaeval rain is again from Virginia Woolf’s wartime diary.

The three stages of human panic are described in A Civilian in the Polish War, Franz Theodor Csoker, 1940. I’ve since found that panic is an inexact term for how we react to extreme situations.

Etty Hillesum, in An Interrupted Life, wrote of …a young man falling, an aeroplane streaking down in flames

…of the bombardment two things: that each country was convinced that the bombardments carried out by the enemy airmen were indiscriminate; that each was equally convinced its own airmen exercised care and discrimination in its bombardments comes from The Great Delusion, published in 1928.

We were evacuated, and I was walking on the snow in my bare feet and slippers. is testimony of an interned Japanese-American man

There was war before and I lived through it. And there will probably be other wars which we shall also live through: A Polish woman is speaking.

…so long will we find ways of adapting ourselves is also from Etty Hillesum.

…the severance that war seems to bring is again from Virginia Woolf.

The words of Santos-Dumont, …instinctive liberty, close the poem.