I’ve been in the States for almost two weeks—really the maximum time I can be away from my “real” life in Greece. My husband has been holding down the fort, which includes a five-year old boy and a six-month baby girl. I’m due to fly out in an hour—I’m lucky; I’ve got a direct flight and we’re far enough south, evidently, to avoid the cloud. As I write, a volcano with a name like something out of a Norse saga--how in the heck is it pronounced?--is spewing its dangerous particles up into the stratosphere, a reminder that even the best laid plans gang aft agley.
I’ll be honest—after 12 days of poetry conferences, festivals and speaking engagements, though all fulfilling in themselves, I’m poetry-ed out. I have no urge to write, read or discuss poetry. That’s a good sign, I guess, that I’m ready to get back to my distinctly unpoetic life (doesn’t Keats says that a poet is the most unpoetic thing imaginable?) of making school lunches, changing diapers, getting down on the floor on my hands and knees and looking for microscopic pieces of Playmobil (“No, not that one. The blue pirate hat. With the feather.”) It all ended on good note—last night I was at the Sarah Lawrence poetry festival, wonderfully and efficiently run by students, down at the end of a crowded dinner table with two other Harriet posters, Jeff McDaniel and Brian Turner, talking over noisy and cheerful conversation, poetry jokes and gossip. How cool is that? Still, I’m definitely ready to look up from the page for a while at the world around me.
In a way, the volcanic eruption, its disruption and interruption of travel, is a global version of that—everyone compelled for a moment to consider the splendor and terror of nature, and how things we think are in our hands, are not.
It’s hard not to think of volcanoes without thinking of Craig Arnold, who went missing a year ago—I want to say almost to the day-- in late April as he climbed a volcano on an obscure island in Japan. He was working on a book about volcanoes, and was writing a blog called “volcano pilgrim.” Wouldn’t he have been thrilled by this titanic spectacle, this reminder the planet is still fiery and alive and unpredictable under our feet?
The past three years have been difficult for my poetic generation. Several excellent poets—poets accomplished in their craft, steeped in tradition, but also more exciting and rough around the edges than “craft” and “tradition” tend to connote--born within a year or two of myself, have died, two by their own hand (Sarah Hannah and, more recently, Rachel Wetzsteon). (And only slightly older, Reginald Shepherd, whom I never met but was honored to be coblogger with briefly during my blogging stint here, and who died of cancer in 2008.)
I’m returning from AWP where I was on a panel mourning the death and celebrating the life of Craig Arnold, who, though hardly a suicide—rather, the opposite, if that makes any sense—embraced life by flirting with danger. Last year in Chicago, I was at AWP on a panel arranged by Craig; he picked me up at the airport, and after 20-some hours of Dante-ish travel, I have never seen so welcome a smiling face. Six weeks later, he literally dropped off the edge of the world. In my pagan afterlife, I hope he will be there when I step off the boat, greeting me with the same broad grin.
Whereas travelling to the US, we were hard on the heels of dawn over the Atlantic, gaining on time, I will now be plunging headlong into the oncoming night, skirting a cloud of pumice and ash and glass, thinking of the friends I leave behind here and of the future—after all, what are one’s children?--I am hurtling towards, flying into blind.
P.S. I'm editing in to say--here I am in Athens. We would usually cross the Atlantic up around Iceland and then head south once we got to the UK, but we were able, this time around, to cross directly over and go through Europe via Portugal. We landed in Athens, where the flight crew was worried they would be stranded and stuck as the ash drifts east and south. How lucky that I was flying far enough south and had a direct flight! Many on the plane, though, were trying to get to somewhere else--one family was trying to work its way to the UK via trains.
So I'm now thinking of the stranded--Ange Mlinko trying to get home to her kids and blogging about poetry and exile. (Ange, your beautiful new book was waiting for me here!) And as I left Brian Turner at the Sarah Lawrence poetry festival he had learned his flight to Ireland was cancelled. I know what it is like when your heart is already somewhere else, timezones ahead or behind, and your body is grounded. Safe travels!
A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...