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Postcard from nowhere: airports and assumptions
Why are there so few good poems about air travel? And are there any great ones? Is it just that it has been around for public transport less time than boats or trains or even automobiles? I can think of terrific poems about all of these, but only a brace of air travel poems spring to my mind, both about the attendant misery of airports, among other things. I’m sure folks here can remind me of others and broaden my list.
There is Robert Conquest’s charming
After the horrors of Heathrow
A calmness settles in.
A window seat, an ambient glow,
A tonic-weakened gin.
The pale grey wings, the pale-blue sky;
The tiny sun’s sharp shine,
The engines’ drone, or rather sigh;
A single calm design.
Those great wings flex to altering air.
Ten thousand feet below
We watch the endless miles of glare
Like slightly lumpy dough.
Below that white all’s grey and grim,
The wrong side of the sky.
Reality’s down in that dim
Old formicary? Why?
the poem goes on its elegantly discursive way, and ends:
We drift down from pure white and blue
To what awaits us there
In customs shed and passport queue
–The horrors of O’Hare.
I have to say I adore that word “formicary” here–though I think there are critics now who would protests at such a self-consciously literary word. (“Does anyone really say ‘formicary'” I hear the predictable cry.) But “ant-hill” just would not have done.
There is Larkin’s sonnet, “Autobiography at an Air-Station”:
Delay, well travellers must expect
Delay. For how long? No one seems to know.
With all the luggage weighed, the tickets checked,
It can’t be long . . . We amble to and fro,
Sit in steel chairs, buy cigarettes and sweets
And tea, unfold the papers. Ought we to smile,
Perhaps make friends? No: in the race for seats
You’re best alone. Friendship is not worth while.
Six hours pass: if I’d gone by boat last night
I’d be there now. Well, it’s too late for that.
The kiosk girl is yawning. I feel staled,
Stupefied, by inaction–and, as light
Begins to ebb outside, by fear; I set
So much on this Assumption. Now it’s failed.
It’s classic Larkin, and brilliant in its evocation of the stultification of air travel (and I for one love that pun on Assumption) and its larger metaphorical implications; but it ain’t no Whitsun Weddings.
I don’t know that I have ever penned a poem in the air despite untold hours of waiting and travelling in airports and airplanes. Air travel doesn’t seem conducive to that kind of thought or reflection–and as such is perhaps a metaphor for poetry in the modern world.
One of the things that does give me pause these days in airports in the US is how it is the one place where you understand we are at war. Whenever we come through Atlanta, we see impossibly young people in brand new desert fatigues shipping out, older soldiers coming back, reservists with middle-aged paunches and greying temples bidding farewell to their families, or being welcomed home.
In the Newark airport, we noticed a returned reservist with his military haircut and artificial leg (he walked quite naturally, but was wearing shorts.) Moments later, in one of those juxtapositions of travel, I ran into a family with a small boy in tears. He wanted to take a toy with him on the plane–a GI Joe-type action figure–but it was missing a leg. The father kept saying it was broken, it was trash, and to just throw it away.