For the first 100 days of the Trumpet administration, this blog will feature a new poem of protest, by my own hand and by others. They will be polished gems, or rough cut drafts of rage, or in process pieces searching for peace. They may be haiku or tanka, limericks or lyrics, verses free or fettered. If you would like to submit to this endeavor, please send an email, with poem saved as a word document (.docx) to waxyandpoetic AT gmail DOT com. All rights remain with the author.
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Ekphrasis, in Greek, means “description.” I’m a big fan of ekphrastic poetry, that genre that, on the most basic level, is writing something descriptive about a visual representation (a painting, a photo, a sculpture). As the Poetry Foundation defines it, “An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.” The Academy of American Poets offers some fine-tuning that syncs nicely with my own work, saying “[M]odern ekphrastic poems have generally shrugged off antiquity’s obsession with elaborate description, and instead have tried to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects.”
Since my first encounters with the poetry of Ferlinghetti, and my first attempts with the flaming giraffes of Dalì, I have grown quite fond of art as inspiration. Thus is born the first poem inspired by the art of David Sweeney. His work, if you’ll forgive the brief, Cliff Notes-style, non-poetic ekphrasis, reminds me of the dream-like canvases of the Surrealists; his paintings make use of collage, of mixed media, which always summon my attention, reminiscent of the way I gravitate to some of the works of Picasso, Ernst or Braque. I am especially drawn to the appearance of text–newspaper clippings, stenciled quotes, scribbled phrases–in his art; the intersection of image and word begging for the poet’s ekphrasis. Lest I ramble on too much, I leave you to look at his œuvre at your leisure. If you find something you like, snatch it up, it’s hard to find good original art these days.
And now, to the poem.
It was first inspired by David Sweeney’s painting #517.
The italics (except for the French), including the title, are taken from some articles in the NYTimes regarding air travel. The thrust of the poem, in language and subject, has changed repeatedly, and the last line was a surprise, unexpected in its return to a minor detail in the painting, as I finished this, draft version 1.5.
Whatever Happened to First Class?
First, let’s get things straight. The euphemism for first caste has got to go, cleared for takeoff–always a misnomer misnaming for misdirection. Even before da Vinci’s device and the Wrights’ winged wonder, the ocean-gliding, wave-riding masted masterpieces kept the dividing line pretty clear, offering free passage to free labor for the not-so-free folks packed in the hold, barely holding on to their humanity, barely holding on to their little-scrap lunch.
So what happened to first caste? Classy became the label rather than the behavior, fancy china replacing fine company, fancy curtain replacing fine linen. And in first caste, room to stretch and kick, lie flat as capital’s whore, 300 channels to choose as you charge IMac and IPad and IPod and IPhone and IBeeper and ISnob, sip champagne, the warm wet sandpaper towel wiping from your face the grime of those in the back of the bus, the tail of the plane, the bottom of the boat. High above, the 1 percent fly first class; the .1 percent fly Netjets; the .01 percent fly their own planes.
Meanwhile, tail-side, knees to chest, elbows tucked with three-pretzel packs and chocolate-chip puck, the chosen few of the 99% lucky to escape the surface, grouped into herds by booking for boarding, one movie on one screen, one position for your one-inch seat, unsettle in for takeoff and turbulence.
And on the ground, far below, the (un)lucky 99%, stick in traffic, hostage to the toll road trolls, opt for one of the 300 $ burgers at the 300 fast food joints for the 300 lbs, the only bubbles from the soda machine–bottom caste transport never felt good.
“You go into first class because it’s less horrible than coach.” No cash to pay outright, CapitalOne card hassled to the max? Then it is perhaps with the free upgrade, high miles in your frequent flier club, without mile high club fornicating to give the bumpy flight some purpose. Which seat do you book? Which level are you?
Platinum Premium or Bronze Business, Elite Economy or Cushy Coach Poached Ivory or Plated Silver, Gaudy Gold or Dazzling Diamond these are the new Fabulous First, Satisfying Second, Thirsty Third, Struggling Steerage which were Captain and mates and crew and slaves from King and Court and Lords and Serfs. Plus ça change, the more it stays the same.
And somewhere in the middle, betwixt the heaven and the hell, the poet, drifting in his dirigible, observes them all.
It was the summer of 19— (and that’s enough to date me) and I’d been away, already, at university for a couple of years. In those days, during breaks and weekends, I wasn’t going “home” to the mid-sized town in East Texas where I grew up; instead, I was going to Houston to stay with my maternal grandmother (qu’elle repose en paix). I saw my family often enough. There were plenty of phone calls and the emails were starting to fly back and forth while I was still getting used to writing them.
Due to a bit of luck (or perhaps a bit of wisdom), both my parents were educators (now retired), and so at that point in my life, I had been fortunate enough to have visited somewhere between 25 and 30 states in this grand ol’ union of 50. Always by car (those epic road trips, books and movies and games for endless entertainment), such travels were the highlights of our long, away-from-school, vacations.
Everything took a dramatic change in the aforementioned summer, an expected, though fully-embraced, topsy-turvy transformation.
I was smart (can we use precocious to describe a young man in his early 20s?) and had traveled more than most my age. I’d read more than most my age, too. I’d left the country many times to visit the England of Sherlock Holmes, Candide’s Europe, even Gulliver’s Lilliput. Yet, I’d never left the U.S., and I’d never traveled on a plane. I’d never even owned a passport. In the summer of 19— (feel free to hum that Bryan Adams tune, but let’s be ABSOLUTELY CLEAR, it was not, I repeat, it was not the summer of which he sings), I embarked on my first overseas journey, heading to Paris and other parts of France, as well as London.
At the airport, I was like a kid at a train station or, maybe, just like a kid at the airport. I watched plane after plane take off and land; I watched them taxi to and from the gates. Heck, I even watched my luggage conveyor into the bowels of the airport, and the glorified golf-cart-trains take said bags to the belly of the 747 beast. Everything was shiny and interesting, exciting and awe-inspiring. The nine-and-a-half hour flight would culminate in a completely new understanding of myself.
The descent into Paris started the following morning; I hadn’t slept a wink, it was just too cool to be on a plane, watching movies, eating free snacks and meals, drinking wine and champagne. I can honestly say I really don’t remember whether, as we approached the city, I was able to see la Tour Eiffel from the window,
or if the Byzantine poke of Sacré Coeur would have nudged us off course from Roissy-Charles de Gaulle.
But I do remember landing. I remember the final drop in altitude towards the runway, clouds giving way to the cool gray of morning, then the industrial gray of buildings, and finally the slate gray of airstrip. I remember, as we taxied, seeing for the first time French trucks and French buses, shuttling equipment and passengers from one adventure to the next. I remember wondering what cool things the French pilots were saying to each other, and whether I would understand them in my still-basic French. I remember the feeling of return, the feeling that I was home, unknown but welcoming.
But it wasn’t just a feeling. I was home, return of the son long lost from the arms of the Iron Lady, the fils manqué finally back to Marianne, enfant adopté de la patrie (to the tune of “La Marseillaise”), but part of the family all the same. It was as if I were starting my own “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” though it would be another year or two before I would be drawn into Césaire’s text, a poem that still mesmerizes and confounds my understanding. I found myself in the land of Voltaire, ready to be lost in the crowds of Baudelaire, wandering the street poems of Prévert. I was eager to traverse the dreamscapes of Breton, stroll the rues and the boulevards under the sun and the moon, succumb to the embrace of the Left Bank and the Right.
Between the shades of gray, the jolt of ground and the screech of tire, I knew that I was chez moi. After that arrival, plane cozied up to the gate, my torrid affair with Paris would leave the page and the pensée and be manifest in narrow streets and nightly walks, in park picnics and museum meditations. I would come to discover the self I had never known, but had always suspected. And the US would henceforth be a place I was visiting, a temporary stop on return flights to La Ville Lumière.