This poem by Dan Overgaard was conceived as he reclined in a window seat on a long cross-country flight with a book he didn’t care to read and no electronic distractions. Compelled to observe and meditate on his surroundings, a series of unexpected insights sprung to mind…
by: Dan Overgaard ((Header art by photographer Sam Johnston.))
Sky Above Clouds
High above eastern Pennsylvania,
I can see the sun’s accelerating
steeply up behind us. Ovals of light
are carving their way down through the headrests,
although I’d need some Ptolemaic math
to prove this is the movement of the sun.
In stereo, the operatic roar
from Rolls and Royce—all horns and timpani,
all strings in singing tension without pause—
has stunned us to submission in our rows,
so meekly belted, upright for the show.
Each flight’s an opus of a single note
which might or might not finish per the score.
Today, no intermission at O’Hare.
Symphonic bellows of titanium
will blow in full crescendo to the coast—
six hours at thirty-five thousand feet.
Too bad the Nobel winner in my hand
can’t reel me in. He looked so self-assured
among that rabble by the register,
alone and enigmatic in the snow.
Now, the receipt reminds me, fifteen bucks or so
might well have gone for two, and I’d have a choice.
I’m like a P-I on a stakeout—bored,
craving some coffee but afraid to drink,
since it might interrupt this non-event.
I ought to focus like an aging monk,
empty my expectations and desires
and float around in this recycled air
until I’m reincarnated on the ground,
and can reclaim my senses and my scale.
I’d sleep, but all these thoughts of weightlessness
have freed my eyelids of their gravity
and set me on an aimless watchfulness
somewhere between a daydream and a stare.
The model flight attendants take their laps,
cruising above us, distant but aware.
Surprising me, the seat ahead tips back,
and—like the target of a playground feint—
I’m tricked, recoil, and bump my head, and laugh.
Up close, I see the planning in the weave,
how stitches fit the cover to the seat,
and think about the hand that set the stitch,
the distance from the needle to the hand,
the foot-pounds bottled up in the machine,
and wonder if they’re throttled by a treadle
or object code debugged in Bangalore.
OK, that’s easy: bits are everywhere—
which means my laundry may land with me yet.
But anything could land us anywhere.
The seat-back card seems to promise our escape
in comforting cartoons—see, there’s the plane,
bobbing in shallow water, wingtips bright.
And here’s a line of fliers at the door,
shoeless, patiently clutching their teddy bear
seat cushions, waiting for their turn to shout,
“Hey, Mommy, watch me!” feet-first down the slide.
Just wait your turn, don’t push, there’s lots of time.
Ah, here’s the coffee now. Two sugars, please,
and cream—and thanks for the warm diversion.
Heat drills my fingers like a deep massage,
flipping the restless neurons switch by switch
as bitterness, administered in sips,
releases coffee calmness in my core.
There’s mystery in the work of opposites.
How easily a trick like this can pacify
the needy two-year-olds of any age.
Steam feathers toward the window from my cup.
Perhaps the beads of perspiration there
between the lightly scratched-up sheets of glass
and Plexiglas are something like a sweat,
expressing the exertion that keeps us
in the air. That does sound overblown,
although how thin, the skin of our canoe
(these rapids beating on its riveting),
its ribs and sinews tight against the wind—
though wind can hardly be the word for how
we’re blasting through the angels as we go.
Such confidence!—we claim, but cannot stay.
First time in years I’ve had a window seat,
hating the manifest restrictions and
the lack of passage, like a landlocked king—
and I might try that book again, but til I do,
my stakeout, since I’m stuck here, is the view.
So I’m mulling nimbuses in sunlight, when
my neighbor’s elbow twitches like a pawn
that’s flexing for a leap across two squares—
audacious, when our lands are so defined!
It freezes when I swing my elbow lance
to guard the sovereign border of my ribs,
and I am pleased with the maturity
I exhibit, blithely ignoring him.
At peace for now, I’m free to contemplate
the dreamy privilege of being here
although the noise and energy of our advance
can’t match the swallow-like, angelic dips
and acrobatic glides that fill my dreams
and carry me beside us, cloud to cloud.
Then, suddenly, my oval window frames
a giant work of stewardship or art,
all laid out like a square Midwestern state.
Orderly as an orchard, clouds in rows
extend to the horizon, neatly trimmed,
uncloud-like in their uniformity
as if they have been cultivated here
and, obviously—it makes me laugh—they have.
(Poems are mostly memories, and this flight
was years ago. I had no camera in
my pocket then, so you’ll just have to take
these images the way they come, and make
your call on my reliability.)
And while I’m thinking that I can’t believe
I’m even seeing this, I know I have—
Georgia O’Keeffe at the Art Institute
of Chicago…title? Sky Above Clouds,
something like that—I’ll have to look it up—
a panorama of contained immensities,
improbably and peacefully arranged,
still sleeping in a sweetly peachy dawn.
What I remembered from my visit was
a feeling of suspension, that no breeze
was anywhere, no turbulence.
And I’d thought those rows of clouds were notable
for how she’d ordered them, as if one could
being the subtle, underlying joke.
But now, presented with this evidence,
I think she found them like some bleached-out skulls
somewhere between New York and Abiquiu,
patiently watching the waves of prairie crash
against the mountain ranges, and the buttes rise up,
while others napped or talked, and had their lunch.
I think of Georgia leaving New York behind—
the crush and clamor in the galleries—
to sit at sunrise, watching the shadows
gather in the gullies and then flow down
the ancient faces of the mountainsides,
while over on a wall, some skulls and rocks
might ripen as a still life in the sun.
My neighbor brings his table down for lunch,
a jolt that brings me up to where I sit
and says that temporary sustenance
may be arriving soon. It can’t be much,
but after all I’ve seen, I don’t need much,
not even coffee. Taking it away,
the flight attendant seems a bit surprised.
I pull the wrinkled in-flight magazine
and check the map for news of where we are.
That’s dumb, of course—this long red arcing line
is nowhere near the azimuth of our flight
and yet, just now, I feel that tipping point
that indicates the nose is dropping down,
ever so slightly. Nothing is to scale
in all these other long red arcing lines,
either, except the sense of taking off
and landing somewhere, maybe not for long—
it could be Sacramento, Omaha,
Atlanta, or Chicago, or Detroit.
In each, the sun comes up with different light,
but those are other lives, other escapes.
I put my table up the way I’m told,
and watch familiar mountains taking shape,
so green and black and gray in filtered light
here in the underbelly of the clouds.
And then I see the order and the art,
the city’s messy cultivation and its crop.
Aggressively, the runway bounces up
to meet the wheels, a bully’s welcome home—
familiar, almost hard enough to hurt:
Hey—where you been? I’ll let you off this time.
Best to be stoic now, in face of that.
I hear the trumpets running out of breath,
the skittering of bows across the strings,
the giant chord dismantled, winding down
as little sounds come up—a crying child,
the light, polite applause of seatbelt clicks.
The pawns and kings are shifting from their squares
and planning their new moves, the game ahead,
while heading for the exit with their coats.
I stuff the Nobel winner in my bag—
his challenge now will be the crowd at home.
And I reach up cautiously into the bin,
pondering the warning I think I heard:
Your context may have shifted in the flight.
Dan Overgaard was born and raised in Thailand. He attended Westmont College, dropped out, moved to Seattle, became a transit operator, then managed transit technology projects and programs. He’s now retired and catching up on reading. His poems have appeared in The Galway Review, Shark Reef, Willawaw Journal, As It Ought To Be Magazine, Glass Poetry: Poets Resist, The High Window, Canary Lit Mag, Shot Glass Journal, Allegro Poetry, Triggerfish Critical Review and other journals. Read more at: danovergaard.com.