Aug. 10, 2005

Night Flight

by Marjorie Saiser

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Poem: "Night Flight" by Marjorie Saiser, from Lost in Seward County. © The Backwaters Press. Reprinted with permission.

Night Flight

From 18F I see only the wing,
see only metal and rivets and painted black arrows
and partially worn-off letters saying things like NO STEP.
From 18F, or anywhere on this plane,
I could see, if I want to, the video.
I could, evidently, watch ads for Buzz Lightyear, the series.
But I am watching us, the community
of 1090 to Denver. We are facing forward
as though in a tunnel or tube,
dots of light in a row above our heads.
We are ranks of readers, sleepers.

or we are the cast of Our Town;
we are cast as the dear departed,
sitting onstage on our chairs-supposed to be graves—
looking straight ahead, talking among ourselves,
never looking at Emily, the living,
when she comes to visit the cemetery.
We are not turning toward Emily;

we are numbers and letters facing forward.
From 18F I see we are regular in our posture,
regular in our habits.

In my row we are raising similar cups from similar trays,
oddly comforting:
now this head, now that one, lowers to drink.
One by one we sip our mutual nectar;
one by one we set it down.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1842 that Herman Melville left the Marquesas Islands and hopped a whale ship back home, an experience that became the subject of his first book. He had signed onto a whaling ship in 1841, he was in need a job. It was a great adventure at first. He got to see sperm whales, sailed along the coast of South America, and saw the Galapagos Islands. He was looking forward to the Pacific Islands. He had heard it was like a paradise. The weather was perfect, and the women were beautiful and scantily clad. But by the time the ship reached there, the captain had grown sick and he was treating his men worse and worse. And so Herman Melville jumped ship and went off on his own. He snuck over the side of the ship in a downpour, swam to shore, and headed into the jungle, knowing only a few of the native words and phrases.

He came upon a village of friendly people and lived with them for four months. He came to believe they were far more civilized than any Europeans or Americans. Men and women wore the same clothing. Both went bare-chested, a skirt of cloth, wore jewelry, loved to dance, and were free with their sexuality.

And he noticed that though they were forced to live off the land and build their own homes, there were no poor people. Nobody went hungry. He wrote, "There seemed to be no cares, griefs, troubles, or vexations... There were no foreclosures of mortgages, no bills payable...or to sum it all up in one word—no money."

He found his life luxurious, but he was worried if he stayed too long he'd never leave. So on this day in 1842, he found an Australian ship in need of crew, and he hopped aboard. It took him more than a year to get back to the U.S., and when he got home, he told his sister a sanitized version of what had happened to him in the Marquesas. She urged him to write it down, and that became his first book, Narrative of a Four Months' Residence Among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands, which was a huge success, but it plagued Melville for the rest of his life—his readers always expected him to write more tales of exotic adventures in the Pacific.

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