Michael Morse on “(What the Admiral Saw from the Air)”

(What the Admiral Saw from the Air)

Suppose you're just a little north of the question.
A few degrees east of circumstance.
Miles west of the latke breakfast.

What if the southerlies deflect the river project
and a nor'easter toys with your scavenger hunt?

Do you make a game out of longitude?
Do you sing a little song of latitude,
make up a manta called locale
and let it resonate out loud and in the head?

Here's what Byrd does:
he keeps his admiral stars in a little box
lined with blue velvet, imitation velvet,
a little northeast of the real deal,
a little west of the real McCoy.

He takes them out from time to time,
lifts up the lid and reacquaints himself with pewter.

And he'll talk to Peary out loud:

You walked where I merely flew.
Your best friend is a dog named Perimeter.

He dreams of Peary on his sled of spent dogs
wrapped in a pair of pure grays, cloak and sky,
sees him stop and skyward raise his hands.

Byrd sits with his boxed stars
and welcomes the white coasts of ceremony,
the sharp lapels and the smell of starch,
the pants that have a crease he calls true north,
but when he puts his hand upon his chest
his charts are all for naught: the day, haywire,
his heart a compass needle gone berserk.

Some stars are given out as praise, others, restitution:
a little north of happenstance, just east of where we'd like to be,
a little west of what's in store and south of expectation.

What does Byrd think when he sees
the real thing, the stars up above,
that burning far away but bright enough to see? 

On "(What the Admiral Saw from the Air)"

The poems in Void and Compensation feel like rehearsals for and engagements with both loss and connection…I guess the two go hand-in-hand.  The lyric, then, can serve to distill experience…it offers a chance to find compensation in singing, in finding a presence within our circumstances and our thinking and our feeling.

"(What the Admiral Saw from the Air)" is a poem with two very different wellsprings. The first is an actual object or set of objects: my Grandfather's admiral stars. Morton was a surgeon who achieved the rank of Rear Admiral, and his two-star bars were passed down to his only daughter and then to me. They live in a little cardboard box with blue velvet on the inside, an image that's part of "What the Admiral Saw from the Air".  The stars are one palpable connection I have with my Grandfather, who died when I was eight and before I had the chance to really know him.

The other wellspring for the poem was more playful and speculative: I was reading about polar exploration and became intrigued about the race to get to the North Pole and of competing claims of having reached it or even having flown over it. Robert E. Peary claimed that he was the first to reach the North Pole by foot (and/or sled) in 1909; Richard Byrd claimed to have been the first to fly over the North Pole in 1926. Both claims have their believers and their naysayers.

In part the poem is a reflection about achievement and honor, which in real life feels embodied in my grandfather's stars. The poem, in more playful and speculative fashion, also reflects on ambition and desire and fame. Are Peary's and Byrd's claims specious or for real? What if they both didn't really get there? How close were they? How east or west or north or south of the desired goal were they? And if they both did what they claimed, I wondered if Byrd was a bit jealous for not getting there first on foot as opposed to merely flying over the desired goal.

And so the poem explores a divide of degrees in both space and magnitude. Is it better (or just merely different) to be on the ground and in touch with the place? Does flying give one more aerial "inclusion," a more grand perspective of place and context, to see the world from on high, to be above it all, on top of the world, etc.?  In playing with literal and figurative verticals and horizontals, I liked the music of all the directionals, a music, I hope, that propels a meditation about what we seek and what we achieve and what we aspire to in the grand scheme of things. I'm drawn to the end of the poem when verticals come back into play…there's the ground, there's the air, and then, above it all, out there, is space and its actual stars, the "real McCoy," the model for what's hewn and forged and given as praise…which, while real, also oddly serve as a kind of platonic and/or metaphoric ideal.




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