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Since April is National Poetry Month, I normally would have saved this until the Spring Poetry Roundup I have planned for the end of April. However, if Jane Summer’s Erebus is not sui generis, it’s the closest thing you’ll see this month. Poetry, yes. But it’s also prose, graphs, maps, photos, lists, newspaper articles, and other media all about the little known crash of Air New Zealand’s flight TE901 , a sightseeing excursion on a DC-10 which slammed into Antarctica’s Mt. Erebus on 28 November, 1979, killing all 257 people aboard. The link to Summer is that her best friend, Kay Barnick, died in that disaster, as did Barnick’s mother, Marion.
I knew nothing of the crash, but that wasn’t the case after Erebus, which presents facts and poetry in a tumbled jumble of feeling and sorting. But isn’t that how we remember? How we grieve? Not in linear motion, but in a random fashion that sees words cheek to jowl with pictures and overlaid with other images. It inhabits the past as well as the present, and it’s so garbled that it shouldn’t work. The parallel lines of logic and storytelling should order this anti-structure into submission, but it can’t. The emotions are too powerful to be contained within those lines. It breaks free in a way I’ve never quite experienced before.
Summer’s grief and anxiety is palpable here, her raw, wild poetry matched by the horrific images and neutered language of post-accident reports that lend an air of normalcy to proceedings only to vanish like the mysterious pages of the pilot’s personal notebook–seen one moment and officially gone the next–before another wave of imagery breaks over the reader. Finding a portion to quote is difficult as it works more all-of-a-piece than it does separately. However, these lines from “Cruising Altitude” say much:
No one in the world hears/metal claw ice/or the retort when the craft explodes./No one in the world sees bodies catapulted into crevasse after crevasse/cleaved by wreck as it hurtled along ice, the dying animal furiously burrowing/passengers into frozen tombs. A hand in shifting snow/seems to imitate the royal wave, not wanting/to make a fuss.
The overall effect of Erebus is one of elegy and honoring lost friends, but Summer also makes clear how the investigation was bungled, with evidence missing or stolen through bureaucratic indifference. It retains its razor edges so that it never slips into sentimentality, remaining sharply observed and even more sharply expressed. I actually read it twice. I put it down the first time, astonished at how much I’d learned and how much I felt, then immediately went back to the first page. Erebus is a remarkable achievement by a marvelous poet.
© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler