Aug. 26, 2003

Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet

by Tony Hoagland

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Poem: "Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet," by Tony Hoagland, from Donkey Gospel (Graywolf Press).

Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet

At this height, Kansas
is just a concept,
a checkerboard design of wheat and corn

no larger than the foldout section
of my neighbor's travel magazine.
At this stage of the journey

I would estimate the distance
between myself and my own feelings
is roughly the same as the mileage

from Seattle to New York,
so I can lean back into the upholstered interval
between Muzak and lunch,

a little bored, a little old and strange.
I remember, as a dreamy
backyard kind of kid,

tilting up my head to watch
those planes engrave the sky
in lines so steady and so straight

they implied the enormous concentration
of good men,
but now my eyes flicker

from the in-flight movie
to the stewardess's pantyline,
then back into my book,

where men throw harpoons at something
much bigger and probably
better than themselves,

wanting to kill it, wanting
to see great clouds of blood erupt
to prove that they exist.

Imagine being born and growing up,
rushing through the world for sixty years
at unimaginable speeds.

Imagine a century like a room so large,
a corridor so long
you could travel for a lifetime

and never find the door,
until you had forgotten
that such a thing as doors exist.

Better to be on board the Pequod,
with a mad one-legged captain
living for revenge.

Better to feel the salt wind
spitting in your face,
to hold your sharpened weapon high,

to see the glisten
of the beast beneath the waves.
What a relief it would be

to hear someone in the crew
cry out like a gull,
Oh Captain, Captain!
Where are we going now?

Literary Notes:

It was on this day in 1920 that Bainbridge Colby, the Secretary of State, issued a proclamation announcing the incorporation of the 19th Amendment into the U.S. Constitution. It ended more than 70 years of struggle by woman suffragists. It proclaimed, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." It had passed through the House and Senate, and now fell to the states. 35 had ratified it, but 36 were required to complete the 2/3 majority. Finally, on August 18, Tennessee pulled through. Twenty-four-year-old legislator Harry Burn decided to vote for the amendment at the last minute because his mother wanted him to, tying the vote. Tennessee became the 36th state to approve suffrage for women. The certified record of the Tennessee vote was sent by train to Washington, D.C., and arrived early on August 26. Colby signed the proclamation that morning at 8:00 at his residence, with no ceremony of any kind, and no photographers to film the event. Colby had one and a half cups of coffee and then signed the document with a regular steel pen. Then he said, "I turn to the women of America and say: 'You may now fire when you are ready. You have been enfranchised.' " None of the leaders of the woman suffrage movement was present.

It's the birthday of Scottish writer John Buchan, born in Perth, Scotland (1875). He's most famous for his thriller Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), which later became an Alfred Hitchcock film. It's about a man who is bored with life in London until he becomes the primary suspect in a murder case.

It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood, born in Cheshire, England (1904). He's the author of many books, including The Berlin Stories (1939), stories about life in pre-Hitler Berlin that were eventually adapted for the musical Cabaret.

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