Section one from: “The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart”
Clem Sanders, bystander
It was late spring and silent,
beach-grass switched like skirts
of women walking past shop
windows on their way to church,
heads bent beside their husbands
come up from orange groves
just greening. I was distracted
by a bird, which was no more
than shoal-dust kicked up by wind.
I missed her waving good-bye,
saw only her back, her body
bowing to enter the thing.
“Clem Sanders, bystander” is the first of ten monologues that comprise the long poem “The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart” by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, a poet of prismatic empathic imagination.
Clem Sanders is the first to speak, in the first poem, of Calvocoressi’s first book. I cannot help but assign importance to such prominent placement, and to hear, in the lyric tautness of his voice, some instruction about poetry itself, about seeing, about being available to what is actually happening, rather than holding out for the idealized version.
The poem opens in silence: “It was late spring and silent.” Silence, and then, pure music: “beach grass switched like skirts.” The sibilant grass blades give way to the dull chop of propeller blades we hear in the prevalence of “B” sounds in the final stanza: goodbye, back, body, bowing. Our bystander enters the scene exactly as he is, listening acutely and possessed of a kind of panoramic, extra-temporal seeing. It is as if he sees the orange groves in time-lapse as the green buds break the spring branches.
“I was distracted by a bird,” he tells us. But wait, it’s not a bird, it’s “shoal-dust kicked up by wind”—that same wind that might have been set spinning by the propellers of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. Just wind. The same wind that may have taken Earhart and Fred Noonan, her navigator, off course.
Clem Sanders is distracted, yes, but he knows he’s distracted. He recognizes how quick he is to assign a form to what swirls before him. I take instruction from him in this. All day long I am constructing birds out of dust.
Strikingly, Amelia Earhart doesn’t even enter the poem until the last stanza, “I didn’t see her wave good-bye.” How often do we not get to say good-bye to someone before they vanish from our lives? Even as I write this, someone dear to me has been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and it’s unclear whether I’ll see him in person again, though last night, in a dream, I crossed a street with him, leaning in to hear the exact, impossibly kind, breadth of his voice.
When Clem Sanders announces himself to be a witness whose view is partial, he gains my absolute trust. He is not the person who snaps the photo to prove he was there, inflating his own importance by aligning himself with a spectacle. He recognizes that he is already aligned.
This poem invites us to think about what it means to be a bystander and reminds us that our view is always partial, and yet, to inhabit that incompleteness is a form of completeness in itself. I hold this poem close because I need its encouragement to speak from within my own fractured, interrupted, and fallible vision. He didn’t need to see her wave. He could see, in “her body/bowing to enter the thing,” her vow. ©
Poem from The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, Persea Books, New York, 2005.