I’m getting on a plane in a few hours, bee-lining for Austin, TX. I don’t love or hate airplanes. That is, the experience of flying. I do, however, despise the taxiing process. I hate that moment we pulled up to the gate and must “remain seated” until the little ding triggers us all to leap from our seats in Pavlovian fashion and grab for the overhead bin. I detest being the first one at the luggage carousel only to be the last person to get his suitcase. But all of that is irrelevant when it comes down to the payoff: the destination. I’m not a “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” guy (well, outside of LOST, that is). When I’m going somewhere, I want to be there. Period. The hell with the “joy of the open road” and all that bullshit. If I have an endpoint in mind, I just want to be there. Case in point, I want to skip the airport this morning and simply be in Austin. The hell with airport lounges, security gates, gift shops, coffee stands, terminals and Cinnabon. I just want my girlfriend already.
Today’s poem isn’t actually about airplanes, but, well, the title is appropriate. Inspired by the style of the amazing poet C. K. Williams, I wrote this piece back in 1996 during my first semester at the College of Santa Fe when I was a 21-year-old with promise. Now, 14 years later, I’m a 35-year-old with the promise of discovering something great, something in Austin, where she is.
Falling sideways out of the crematorium, the bone-turned-ash of my grandmother neatly collected in the urn
she purchased for grandpa’s demise, I suddenly understand what flying’s about. I sprout quills from the pits
of my arms, wings on my back, and take a knowing leap at the blistering noon sky. It is difficult at first,
swaying like an unattached windmill blade. Balance is key, and I’m not yet sure how to maintain loft,
the constant dip just inches from the ground, legs parallel to concrete. But then the steady gain, the consistent
climb toward the blue laid out like a vacant lake, and, yes, I have achieved flight. Fall is unfathomable.
Up there with excreted particles of satellites, televisions, hawks, and the dead, amid the sweet sting
of discarded air, I’m reminded of cacti quills, the greyed, prickly shadow off my grandpa’s face, how it used
to burn and eat my cheekflesh while he squeezed me in his saggy grip. Only grandma used to tell him
to Let the boy go, mom and dad locked in the embrace of parenthood, her words
chipping away at his chin,
at the foundation of all things good, his pulverized voice captured and shelved like canned peaches
for the Pennsylvania winter. Dad’s response came in backhands across her cheek, the thud of knucklebone on jaw,
the sometime blood barely visible before her hands rose up and blocked my view, her dress and gaunt ankles
the only things left as she made for the sanctum of bedroom shelter. She would be gone for the night,
dad tucked out on the sofa, the occasional whimper I could never pinpoint, thinking anywhere but here,
thinking grandparents are the saviors of orphans, thinking of our roof, flagpoles, skyscrapers, and Mars,
thinking of my uncle the ornithologist, how he told me of their bone structure, wingspan, appetite, and custom –
how the mothers regurgitated into their void of tiny mouths, fed them earthworms and bloodsuckers
while father circled above, someways over from the thatch of twig and leaf, his call sounding far like a warped
clarinet through the muddle of fighter-jet exhaust, the crackle and hiss of telephone wires.
The babies kept their eyes shut, feigned interest in anything but mealtime and the accompanying weight,
the haze of mortality bent around their nimble necks like a question mark. But then the eyes reluctantly open:
there is the light, the recognition of wing feather, the sudden smart that flight comes by the unwillingness to fall.