A poem a day for National Poetry Week sounds like a minimum serving.
I’m going to pick a favourite poem from an Australian poet each day to make a five-poem sandwich (5-day week, here). That adjective, favourite, is useful too, because the criteria allows all the sentimental associations and personal affinities one might hope to find in a work of art (we’ll take a high technical standard for granted) — and that’s a true effect even if you insist on being a hard-core formalist.
This is a poem by John Tranter, who recently won the Age Poetry Book of the Year for Starlight: 150 poems. ‘Lufthansa’ comes from his darkly dazzling 1988 collection, Under Berlin. There is a charm about the title, like Paul Simons’ song ‘Kodachrome’ — the way we used to use “Biro,” or how we now use “iPhone.” That something whose motive engine is commercial, and in this case complicatedly nationalistic, should become a vehicle for our most private and powerful feelings, is a bit of psychological jiu-jitsu — a subtle and useful lesson.
It’s one of my favourite poems by an Australian poet — it plucks the deep, bass notes in the rootlessness of travel — the engineering and mathematics that somehow realised the fantasy of flight, the surreal wonder of looking down on snowclad peaks, the disorienting consciousness of contemporary simultaneity: speed in motion and thought, of having been there, and suddenly being here — that rushing, weightless sensation. Bob Dylan’s twisty epigram: “Time is like a jet plane; it moves too fast.”
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L U F T H A N S A
by John Tranter
Flying up a valley in the Alps where the rock
rushes past like a broken diorama
I’m struck by an acute feeling of precision –
the way the wing-tips flex, just a little
as the German crew adjust the tilt of the sky and
bank us all into a minor course correction
while the turbo-props gulp at the mist
with their old-fashioned thirsty thunder – or
you notice how the hostess, perfecting a smile
as she offers you a dozen drinks, enacts what is
almost a craft: Technical Drawing, for example,
a subject where desire and function, in the hands
of a Dürer, can force a thousand fine ink lines
to bite into the doubts of an epoch, spelling
Humanism. Those ice reefs repeat the motto
whispered by the snow-drifts on the north side
of the woods and model villages: the sun
has a favourite leaning, and the Nordic flaw
is a glow alcohol can fan into a flame.
And what is this truth that holds the grey
shaking metal whole while we believe in it?
The radar keeps its sweeping intermittent promises
speaking metaphysics on the phosphor screen;
our faith is sad and practical, and leads back
to our bodies, to the smile behind the drink
trolley and her white knuckles as the plane drops
a hundred feet. The sun slanting through a porthole
blitzes the ice-blocks in my glass of lemonade
and splinters light across the cabin ceiling.
No, two drinks – one for me, one for Katharina
sleeping somewhere – suddenly the Captain
lifts us up and over the final wall
explaining roads, a town, a distant lake
as a dictionary of shelter – sleeping elsewhere
under a night sky growing bright with stars.
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Tuesday: something more grounded.