This poem appears in the Summer 2015 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
“. . . because our reason deters us from the brink, therefore, do we the most impetuously approach it.”
(Poe, “The Imp of the Perverse”)
“. . . the regathering of . . . diffused Matter and Spirit will be but the reconstitution of the purely Spiritual and Individual God.”
I never sit at the emergency hatch,
despite the extra inches of knee-room.
It’s not that I fear I couldn’t pry it open
should we belly-scrape across the tarmac,
the cabin choked with smoke and terror,
it’s that I fear I might just do it
while cruising smoothly at thirty thousand feet.
I can imagine the scene too readily—
the fellow in the aisle seat,
burly, bald and fiercely bearded,
sprawls across the meager lap
of the grandmotherly lady between us,
who shrieks unintelligible pleas and curses
and pulls my hair and scratches at my face,
while his forearm, thicker than both mine together,
tightens at my throat as I grasp the hatch release
with both hands, my knuckles white,
bulging no less than my eyes.
Babies who’d been sleeping,
or cooing in serene contentment,
since we’d reached cruising altitude,
have now taken up the alarm.
And, meanwhile, I, aghast as any on board
at the thought that I might succeed
and be sucked with the others
into the mid-troposphere,
keep yanking at the hatch
in spittle-spewing frenzy
with all my driven will.
None of this can happen, of course.
The pressure per square foot in an airborne cabin
makes the hatch impregnable.
So whatever my inner pressure per square inch
my fellow passengers have nothing to fear of me
nor I of myself, while flying the friendly skies.
Nevertheless, I sit elsewhere.
The mere thought of my slumped shoulder
set against an entrance to the abyss
makes me queasy with visions
that all end with me falling and falling,
my screams trailing high above me,
my lips curled both in horror
and a hint of a smile,
a bit of matter
at once fearful and eager,
returning to the emptiness or Essence
out of which it once was propelled into something.
Allen F. Stein is professor of English at North Carolina State University. Among his academic publications are works on Henry James, Edith Wharton, William Dean Howells, and Joseph Conrad, and he has had several short stories published.