NAVIGATE, AMELIA EARHART'S LETTERS HOME by REBECCA LOUDONJEANNINE HALL GAILEY Reviews
Navigate, Amelia Earhart’s Letters Home by Rebecca Loudon
(No Tell Books, 2006)
Navigate, Amelia Earhart’s Letters Home, Rebecca Loudon’s chapbook from No Tell Books, is saddle-stitched with a glossy cover, with radiant art by Stacy Elaine Dacheux depicting a watercolor version of Amelia Earhart with her arms out and paper airplanes sailing overhead. In a move reminiscent of Jane Mendelsohn’s novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, which imagined Earhart’s life trapped on a deserted island after crashing her plane on her infamous last flight, Loudon’s whimsical collection details the imagined ephemera at the end of Amelia Earhart’s life. The writer inhabits Earhart’s persona so intensely you have to remind yourself that these are not artifacts from the aviatrix’s real life. For those of you already familiar with Loudon’s work, never fear: the collection lacks none of Loudon’s trademark ferocity, vivid, dream-like narratives, and dark humor.
The poems are a bit like hallucinogenic line drawings, trying to evoke the unknown imagined last days of the famous pilot with pieces of childhood memories, fragments of lists, diaries, letters and imagined conversations – the things she wished she had brought (“Oh for a good scotch,”) curses on a childhood piano teacher, unwritten feelings for friends, especially Neta Snook, the female stunt pilot who taught Amelia to fly, her father, husband George Putnam, and Fred Noonan, the navigator who was in the plane with Amelia when it went missing. It helps to know some background about these people and their relationships to Amelia Earhart to appreciate all that this collection is trying to do, but it’s not mandatory – the gaps can be filled in by the reader’s imagination.
Stylistically, the poems vary in form, making the whole chapbook a kind of collage; some pieces appear to be letters with formal punctuation and spacing, while others are unpunctuated paragraphs, short-lined lists, or little lyric stanzas. For instance, the heart-breaking last poem, “Where are you Fred?” takes the form of short unpunctuated lines, which seem to resemble the last breaths of the heroine, resigned to death:
“the bright sea
you punched my arm
you said the fuel tanks
bubble with champagne
I want to tell you how it felt
falling and knowing
what a bad idea it was
to have decided against the parachutes
I was a seed pod tumbling
thought I could flap my arms
shout your name and Snook’s
like synchronized swimmers
Amelia Mary Earhart”
Contrast that with the imagined letters to her father, which is a vivid descriptive paragraph. Here are a few lines from one of these:
“…There are animals here feral dogs but sleek with slick fur or no fur in certain kinds of light and rabbits and pigs. They are slippery wet…You once told me I was too big for a girl and too small for a horse. Now I’m too small for even a girl. I believe the wasps are thread-waisted or mud-daubers…I scraped the stingers out with a clam shell…”
In that poem, you can feel the speaker clinging to scientific observation and a will to survive as she presents the situation to her father. Compare that to the more intimate tone in the letters to “Snook” and the “from the missing diary excerpts,” which both ramble in punctuation-free frenzy. From “Darling Snook:”
“Thank you for inquiring about my eating habits rice but not rice something like rice I soak in sea water gigantic heads of cabbage that are not cabbage that grow on trees membranes covered with vines rockfish spikes and split open a terrible dead smell I’ve named rotfruit I eat fruit all day and fish raw I reach in snatch them in my hands there is a flower here the size of a man spongy wet petals a kind of skin when they fall when I fall decayed flesh I worry about my feet I have thatched the wing with petals now the rain is back a putrid roof…”
Here, the poet allows the falling apart of the diction to resemble the beginnings of madness and desperation, the honest obsessions with the stomach and the mortality of the body.
And some pieces are just grocery lists, like this piece labeled, again “From the missing diary:”
This piece may be evocative, surely, of the things one disconnected from civilization would miss the most sorely, but on its own, it wouldn’t have the power that is does taken in with the other poems in the chapbook. The whole chapbook presents a vulnerable, desperate, but still inquisitive and strong woman who struggles to be a survivor.
Certainly this chapbook collection would be of interest to anyone who has identified or been interested in Amelia Earhart, but its appeal reaches to any reader who enjoys identifying with a strong and passionate voice. Acutely sensual, startlingly agonizing, these poems reveal an individual, likeable but idiosyncratic and aching with a desire for freedom even at the cost of life itself.
Jeannine Hall Gailey is a Seattle-area writer whose first book of poetry, Becoming the Villainess, was published by Steel Toe Books in 2006. Her reviews have appeared in The Cincinnati Review and American Book Review; her poems have been on NPR's The Writer's Almanac and Verse Daily and in journals such as The Iowa Review, The Columbia Poetry Review, and Pebble Lake Review.