Navigate: Amelia Earhart's Letters Home by Rebecca Loudon (Review)

Notes on

Navigate: Amelia Earhart's Letters Home
Rebecca Loudon (No Tell Books 2006)

Written "as" Amelia Earhart, these poems display and explore the art and artifice of persona and the "I." The obvious – that these poems are fiction, arranged – becomes electric, a white-hot elephant in the room. Why? Maybe because this is a topic that interests me right now, and I'm reading it into everything. I think, though, this charged tension between author and speaker is part of what gives Navigate its teeth, and it is apparent first in the poems' focus on audience.

The book is divided into "letters" and excerpts "from my missing diary." The letters deal, in part, with address. "To my Muriel, my doppelganger, my darling, my negative eye," "Dear Anita Neta my curly headed Mary," "Darling Snook," "Mother," "Father" and "Dear George." The letters greet self-consciously, aware that time changes things, that distances warp and swell relationships. Important here, though, that “distance” isn’t metaphorical, “isolation” isn’t subjective. Narrative demands attention: her parents are going about their routine, her “Darling Snook” is getting married, and Amelia’s really, bodily stranded somewhere. She is both waiting rescue/company and realizing the impossibility of the distance that her letters are meant to cross. A letter to “Seamstress Pidge” contrasts the acts of domesticity with acts of survival:

I have mended my trousers 117 times
using the needle in my emergency kit
and black thread until black thread
emptied into spool now I build
worsted by chewing the leaves
of a pepper tree my lips bleed

A letter to “Miss Visser my one and only piano teacher” ends:

Shit shoe
I wished you dead then
I still do.

Amelia Mary Earhart

The only suggestion that Amelia receives communication is an unwelcome and surreal wedding invitation; meanwhile the tone of her letters shifts, grows subtext, gets volatile – it’s distance, and a new way of measuring distance, that’s doing that. The epigraphic poem, though addressed specifically to Frank Hawks, is a collection of O’s, a romantic address to a wide audience. As the letters become more specific, more keenly focused, the listing, remembering, detailing that begins in that first incantation of O’s becomes complicated, gathers weight and branches. I love the things of these poems, because they are made of stuff and they make stuff – because the things show the reader how detail becomes mile marker, horizon line, navigation point too. I am especially drawn to the “missing diary” sections of the book in which the plane and its goods are inventoried and checked, insofar as these poems illustrate a day, a way of understanding context and landscape, “place,” that is key to this voice. From Amelia’s first look at an airplane, I am wondering who came before and after, who this voice is that is keenly informed and shadowed but not possessed or contained by historic, biographical Earhart. “There are waves here that don’t move” leads to “are you affected” – physical geographies and social conventions become equally real and powerful forces. Amelia is “beyond” and gone “other” and examining the texture of that – a tin of starfish is both practical and fantastic, part of society and so clearly separated from it.

When, in a letter to Fred, Amelia writes

we have come to this
we have come to understand
we have come to understand
we have nothing
we are a piston instrument
we are spark
we are fuselage

does it mean we are only a small part of a larger machine? Or does it mean we are every part, that there is nothing sparking besides us? Descriptions of Amelia’s body aging, starving, and becoming adapted to or shaped by its surroundings carries a similar tension; she mourns “my breasts gone my hair a shrub” even as she uses these details to track her progress, her understanding of the geography. “My body is a delta, a three-in-one.” She is telling us where and how and why to find her. It is both inevitable and just too much when we don’t come.

A passage in the final poem lets all the voices and intentions of this narration collide:

I want to tell you how it felt
falling and knowing
what a bad idea it was
to have decided against the parachutes

ha ha

She truly wants to show this, and it is through the spirit of discovery just as much as loneliness, anger, loss. The joke is both a joke and not, the missing parachutes only a bad idea on one side of the punch line, which is itself a memory. I realize now that I haven’t mentioned the author’s name once, but Loudon has been buzzing and ghosting these poems the whole time, considering the “fly girls” to whom the book is dedicated, making this personal, and I imagine these final lines are no different. I know how it feels.


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