Tuesday, mid-morning: ersterbend three minutes that Cessna was in the air Low altitude alert. Climb immediately. called the air traffic controller [silence] [the plane] is experiencing an in-flight emergency. [silence] black smoke billowing the grey day three minutes to boil water in my tea kettle : the hissing climaxes to a scream that fades to exhale white vapor like blood from its silver body we don’t yet know why the pilot didn’t respond crashing into a home on a ridge & killing her her passenger & a dog my brother’s a pilot : it’s like driving on the wrong side of the highway — no experienced person would ever do such a thing an engine failure (that would need to be two for the twin engines) or communication the fog while he wonders why it happened i ask myself silently what they were thinking what i would think i think of Juliane Koepcke the girl who fell two miles & lived to walk away how her mother as the lightning struck LANSA Flight 508 gripped her daughter’s hand & said : Now it’s all over as the plane cracked in half & fell to the jungle floor what matters in that moment, in those final seconds of consciousness, when you know you will not walk away ? — i burned my tongue on my tea it must steep for three more minutes three minutes they didn’t have i watch my hot breath fading on a cold window out to this bleak summer day my dying bonsai (haven’t been able to water for drought) sprouted a green like gold white lily glowing in the sun turn away for a moment & it’s gone — sitting in a pool of thoughts unthought before the interminable silence of this moment breaks in the noise of the things i give my life to, broken building climbing twisting towards that light, the night that covers me — i couldn’t help but hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, Movement IV — all the light & pain, the twists & turns, the laughter, the love, the chords bleeding into one another ; Mahler’s final note, ersterbend, a life, a whisper, the day’s last breath, the sea, as crimson fades to black even Mahler could not hear : softly dying away
My family loves aviation: my brother has dreamed of becoming a pilot since he was a young boy, and he and our father are both pursuing their private licenses. When my brother came home with the news that a personal aircraft crashed shortly after taking off — three minutes, to be more precise — from our regional airport, we were all shocked and saddened, not on an abstract, general level, but on a deeply personal one.
At first I didn’t want to write this poem, as I was finishing editing my other Poets Respond submission for this week, “CLOSED: bear management in progress”. I also didn’t want to overdramatize, to tell a story that I didn’t feel was mine to tell. But after reading Laura van den Berg’s introduction to the Spring 2021 issue of Ploughshares Review, quoting Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, I knew I had to: “I suppose that documenting things—through the lens of a camera, on paper, or with a sound-recording device—is really only a way of contributing one more layer, something like soot, to all the things already sedimented in a collective understanding of the world”.
I had to contribute this one layer, this moment, so that if those who died in the plane crash could no longer live on earth, perhaps this poem could give them new life. If I did not write, I felt that I would lose a part of myself, too.
Image Credit: Monterey County Regional Fire District