Poem of the Month–January 2022

Poem of the Month, January 2022

The poem of the month for January 2022 is “The Aviator,” by A. M. Sullivan, one of the best poets you never heard of. Sullivan’s poems never appeared in popular poetry anthologies, largely because his poems address the daily activities of modern life. Sullivan was associated with the firm of Dun & Bradstreet from 1932 through 1971, serving as editor of Dun’s Review. He was very active in poetry activities in the New York City area. He helped to host a radio program, The New Poetry Hour, on station WOR, from 1932 to 1941. He served several terms as president of the Poetry Society of America. He published over fifteen books of poetry.

The Aviator

A. M. Sullivan

(In Memory of Frank Hawks)

I met him first, leaning against the pillar in the McAlpin
Lobby, still dizzy with a continent etched on his
brain.

Two oceans remembered, and the steel thread stitching
the mountains and rivers; smoke of the morning at
Tucson; smudge of the evening at Newark.

Deaf with the speech of his motor, the roar of a voice
too swift for an echo from earth, but not too fast
for the shadow that burned with the friction of flight.

I knew them all—hedge jumper, pond hopper, barn-
stormer, clowns of the skyramp, snobs of science
with frost on the edge of their tongues.

But one, only one, who could smile his way through the
stormy tangles of air, and the foggy chatter of men
and women who talk through a stencil.

Knight of the vertical empires, wasp of the endless azure,
lost at high noon in the frivolous air,

Frank Hawks, whose name is a heavenly pun, we salute
you, child of wind, in the rich contagion of laughter.

Notes:

Frank Hawks was a well-known American aviator in the 1920s and 1930s. He was almost as well-known as Charles Lindbergh. Flying a variety of aircraft, he set a number of speed records. In 1929 he flew from Burbank California to New York in 18 hours and 21 minutes. He flew another west coast to east coast flight in 1930 in a time of 12 hours and 25 minutes. He was killed demonstrating the Gwinn Aerocar in September of 1938 when the aircraft snagged a telephone line on takeoff and crashed. He was 41 years old. He always appeared in photographs as smiling a friendly smile.

The McAlpin Lobby: In the 1920s and 1930s the McAlpin Hotel in New York City, located on Herald Square, at the corner of Broadway and 34th Street in Manhattan, was one of the most modern and popular of hotels.

Poem of the Month, December 2021

Poem of the Month, December 2021

The poem of the month for December 2021 is “Pilot’s Luck,” by Dabney Horton. Horton was an American pilot who flew for the Aviation Militaire branch of France during World War I. He signed up in the summer of 1916 and flew with three French escadrilles (squadrons) for the next two years. After completing his flight training, he was assigned to Escadrille C. 17 (which flew Caudron aircraft) from July 1917 to January of 1918. He then flew with Escadrille Sop. 255 in January and February of 1918 (this unit flew Sopwith aircraft). Finally he flew with Escadrille Spad 75 from September 1918 until the Armistice (11 November 1918). This escadrille flew SPAD XIII aircraft. A brief profile of Horton can be found Nordhoff and Hall’s Lafayette Flying Corps. “Pilot’s Luck” is a poetic account of his experiences flying in the fragile flying machines of World War I.

Pilot’s Luck

Dabney Horton

This is the sum of the Airman’s need,
‘Twixt heaven and the landing-ground.
These are the gifts that will help him aloft
Wherever his work is found.
A heart beating true at two miles high,
A breast that will find its breath
In frozen mist or a cloud of gas,
And nerves that will race with death.
An ear to hear when his motor’s bad,
An eye to watch for the Hun.
A hand that will balance a plane in the air,
With a finger to spare for the gun.

But the gift he will value as much as his pluck,
And needs must rely on, is—Pilot’s Luck!

When a shadow comes speeding across the sky
And he hears the sharp tac-a-tac
Of the foeman that swoops from an empty sky
And is shooting down at his back;
When the canvas is flying in tattered flicks,
Like feathers shot from his wing,
And the steering gear all at once becomes
A slow and a senseless thing;
When the oil tank is bleeding its life away
And the motor is getting too hot,
And he thinks the next bullet will reach his heart,
If the next bullet is ever shot,

When the enemy’s mitrailleuse is stuck—
This is the marvel called Pilot’s Luck.

When he’s flown three hours directing the guns
And the gas gauge registers ten—
Ten litres of gas to regain his camp
And the mist is rising again,
When he can’t judge distance, direction or height
And the sun has set long ago,
And he hates to believe that his compass is right
For there’s nothing but forests below;
When his motor dies out and is forced to come down
And he aims for an open field,
When he dodges a town, a wall and a ditch
And lands with a broken wheel—

The canal’s at two yards from the place he struck;
This is the marvel of Pilot’s Luck.

Notes:

Mitrailleuse: the French word for machine gun.
A liter: a little over ¼ of a gallon; ten liters would be just over two and a half gallons.
The canal: probably a reference to the Albert Canal in Belgium, the equivalent of a large river.

Poem of the Month, November 2021

Poem of the Month, November 2021

“Sunset Above the Clouds”

By Fred Colvin

(Written August 9, 1945, while flying from Chicago to Detroit)

From out my window on the flying plane
I see the world, much as a bird on high,
As through the clouds we cut our airy lane,
Poised high in air, between the earth and sky.

Below, the towns, the farms, the highways show
The pattern of the earth on which we live;
Above, the azure sky, and floating slow
Are fleecy clouds that untold beauty give.

At times, below our outstretched silver wings
Are banks of clouds that hide the earth from view,
While, deep within, one’s love of beauty sings
As every mile brings to it something new.

At waning day, while still the sun shines bright,
With clouds banked high above and deep below,
The wing tip plunges through though hid from sight,
To reappear as ever on we go.

And as the sun sinks low, its waning rays
Show floating icebergs in a cloud-filled sky,
Make scenes unknown to him who ever stays
Earthbound, knows not the beauties seen on high.

Such sights as these make words of small avail,
The mind grows numb with beauties such as these;
They make mere words seem colorless and pale
As we return to earth and rocks and trees.

Note: Although Colvin does not comment on the date, 9 August 1945 is the date when the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, effectively ending World War II.

From Safety Valve, Exposition Press, 1952.

Poem of the Month for October 2021

The poem for this month is “Instructions for Use of This Toy,” by Howard Nemerov; it was undoubtedly generated by his World War II training experiences, when he (like all military trainees) had to disassemble a rifle and re-assemble it blindfolded. Unlike Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts” (1942), which contrasts the detailed gun disassembly instructions which are being given inside a military training building with the spring-like seasonal signs that appear outside the building, this poem is all about the gun (or something like a gun). Howard Nemerov flew for the Royal Air Force during World War II.

Instructions for Use of This Toy”

. . . is worked this way. Release the striking arm
(marked A on diagram) by means of the
End ratchet on the cylinder marked B.
Slight humming noises should not cause alarm,
But if explosions, or loud coughing sounds,
Seem to be coming from the diaphragm,
It might be well to disengage the cam
Before examining the guard for grounds.
So far so good. The automatic trail
Guide bracket post should be secured against
Vibration of the flange, but do not fail
At any time to keep the wire tensed
That in the event of fire throws the switch
(marked Jettison) that breaks the circuit which . . .

What at first glance appears to be a random collection of disconnected phrases from a wartime technical manual turns out to be, under closer examination, a carefully crafted sonnet.
From Howard Nemerov, Collected Poems (University of Chicago, 1977), p. 123.

Poem of the Month–September 2021

Wings and Cargoes

Outbound

Early morning of a sunshine day in September, the east coast
shining like a picture post card. The airliners flying among
the tall structures, tour buses with wings, giving those on board
a view of New York they would remember in their dying day.
Planes, passengers, baggage piercing the high buildings like arrows
from an alien god. Fire and smoke, then melted metal,
glass and stone collapsing in a welter of debris and sadness.

People walking the streets and freeways covered in ghostly powders,
living remembrancers of the dead, whose souls had disintegrated
in the bright late summer’s light. The man who developed the plan
said he would use their technology to deal them a blow they
would remember forever. From his distant bunker he saw
the wings of commerce kill three thousand people.

Inbound

Dark of night in early May, among the hills and dry terrain of
Abbottabad, the landscape visible only to radar and night vision
goggles. Three helicopters carrying ten men each, guns and radios.
A sudden assault against the strange compound, its triangular wall
like an antique fort. Confusion, shots and shouts echoing in
the narrow halls. The final burst of gunfire, then his lifeless body
inert among the rugs, the maps, the pornography.

When he heard the pulsing beat of helicopters coming from the west,
growing louder in the moonless skies, what were his thoughts?
He should not have been surprised, as those others were, by the hard
purposes of human-powered flight. As he stood in his dark tower, did he
recognize the wings of retribution slicing through the desert darkness?
Had he anticipated the awful symmetry of his design?