They’d barely emerged from the deep-green forests
of that epauletted century. Geraniums bloomed on windowsills in Heidelberg.
Student princes eyed the tavern keeper’s daughter through the blond foam
of their tankards. The future must have seemed weightless
as it came nosing through the clouds, smooth as a biblical fish
throwing its giant shadow on the sea floor, its thin gold-beater’s skin
pressed back against its ribs, cloche-hatted women in fox furs
waving through its observation windows. Composed of too much
dream stuff to be echt matériel, shoals of them congregated silently
over London in the moon’s dark phases, concealed above clouds.
Their crews were unnerved by crackling blue halos; eerie lightning
shot from frostbitten fingers as they lowered spy baskets
on trapeze wires below the cloud cover, taking careful soundings,
then dropped their antique payloads on the gaping population.
Those whom they did not kill scarcely believed in them,
improbable contraptions the parchment-yellow color of old maps,
vessels a rational traveler might have chosen, a half-century earlier,
to pursue daft, round-the-world steampunk wagers. But for them —
the gilded aerialists in their giant dirigibles — the world remained a storybook
unfolding endlessly in signs and wonders, over which they drifted
in stylish accidie; leviathan hunters, relaxed as Victorian naturalists.
And up there everything looked different:
the borders absurd, the people in their witch-fearing villages as
as peasants in a medieval breviary. The mountains, too, seemed surpassable,
offering an alternative angle on the sublime. Occasionally there was concern:
a tear in the fabric, hooked to a typhoon’s tail above the China Sea,
or harried by storms across the Atlantic. But how lighter than air they were.
They did not understand, as they fell continually upwards,
how the nature of the element was the price of their rising:
the assiduous atom seeking an exit, thronging the fabric of their cells.
Witness was the privilege of the many: newsreels captured the death of a star
and — oh the humanity! — its last leisurely plummet in fire, its ashen armature.