Archive for September, 2009

Poe’s Philosophy of Composition

September 27, 2009

This is a found poem that I made from Edgar Allen Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” a couple of years ago and rediscovered today while I was looking for a different poem. Unlike most of my old poems, I still kind of like this one, so I decided to post it.


Backwards—a web of difficulties first.
Before the pen gives its air of consequence,
Radical errors render themselves apparent.

Consideration of an effect
Composes a species of fine frenzy:
A peep behind the crudities of thought.

The rigid consequence of extent
Advances his design of poetical effects
The length of a single sitting.

Effect beauty: the province of the
Most intense, elevating, and pure
When men speak.

An obvious rule of art:
Peculiar elevation alludes to
A homeliness of the soul.

Enveil in that beauty
Its highest manifestation of sadness:
Ordinary induction as a keynote.

Diversify the unvaried refrain
To a single word:

The conception of ill-omen repeating perfection at all points
Is the death of a beautiful woman.
Combine the two ideas.

Construct without scruple purposely enfeebled originality.
Possible metre and stanza alternating less pedantically
Has an indisputable moral power.

His chamber furnished in the ideas of beauty
Made the night tempestuous.
The sonorousness of the fantastic is given entrance.

The lover no longer jests of revolution or fancy
Within the limits of the real,
Nevermore having escaped at midnight.

Through violence seek admission
In poring over a volume
Of the most convenient demeanor.

Immediate echo giving utterance,
The student by self-torture
Will bring the anticipated answer.

Narration has a natural termination,
Rendering prose to seek a meaning
Emblematical of mournful and never-ending remembrance.


Burying the Dead

September 5, 2009

The aisles of the plane were narrower than the aisles of the church had been. The church aisles left space for acknowledgment, embrace, and comfort, while in the plane, it was difficult for two people to pass one another. The pews had more leg room than the seats in the plane, too, and the flight was full enough that the passengers would not have much room to spread out and stretch their legs. Even so, Mort Bucher felt less confined in the plane than he had at the funeral.

During the funeral, habits from Mort’s childhood church boredom had resurfaced. One was the game he had made of viewing the congregation as the boundaries of a maze, with the empty spaces between families and estranged brethren the paths down which his mental sprite could travel. He never made it all the way to an exit, but it was a distraction nonetheless. Another habit was that of scanning through the faces he saw and counting how many he could name. After he learned how to convert fractions into decimals, he started calculating the percentage of that day’s congregation he knew. His father was the pastor back then, so the percentage had always been high. His front-and-center seat for the funeral, though, limited his opportunities to indulge in these games, although he discovered that if he leaned to his left to comfort his mother, it gave him a good view of half the sanctuary.

Despite his discreet absentmindedness, Mort cared deeply for his father and took in the words of every eulogist with such an immediacy that he could have repeated them all to his neighbor on the plane, should he or she ask him to do so. He had heard all of the stories many times before. His preoccupation had instead come from his impending travel plans and his father’s last words to him.

The pilot’s voice welcomed the passengers to the flight and informed them they were looking at a seven hour flight time. The skies were clear all the way from Atlanta to Paris. Normally, all pilots formed the same profile in Mort’s mind–late 30s, short brown hair, physically fit–but today he saw his late father telling them to turn off all electronic devices until the plane reached its cruising altitude. He had seen his face and heard his voice everywhere since the death; the only place free from apparitions had been the funeral.

The Paris leg would likely be the shorter part of Mort’s trip. Although the transatlantic flight was longer than the flight down to Mali, the chances of the African flight getting delayed or canceled were high. And even after he flew into Bamako, he would have a long journey to the village in the Keniebaoule Reserve where he was to serve his missionary term.

The stretch of ceiling not hidden by the overhead luggage compartments was an off-white color that seemed somehow to reflect more light than was in the cabin. It was, Mort thought, the same color as the lining of his father’s coffin. The seats were the gray-blue of cloud-covered lakes and somber suit coats.

Mort found his seat next to a black woman wearing a colorful patterned dress. The folds of the dress hung so loose over her legs and hips that it was hard to tell how small she was. Mort smiled to her as he sat down, and she answered with a smile of her own. Her smile lingered on her face longer than his did.

“My name is Aisha,” the woman said.

Mort recognized the name from research he had done when he was deciding where to serve. Aisha was an Arabic name moderately popular among African women. The woman’s dress was sleeveless and she spoke without an accent.

“I’m Mort,” he replied. “Are you just going to Paris?”

“No, although my layover is so long that it will feel like it. I’m actually on my way to Nigeria. My parents live there.”

“Oh, so you’re on your way back home, then?”

“That’s one way of looking at it. But I’ve been gone so long, it doesn’t feel like that. I haven’t seen my parents in fifteen years. The schools are bad where they live, and we had contacts in the States who let me live with them while I went to school. I came over when I was ten, and I just graduated from medical school in May. Are you going to Paris?” “No, just stopping there. I’m supposed to fly to Mali a few hours after we land, but the flights there have been hit and miss lately. Who knows when I’ll finally get there.”

“What are you going there for?”

“I’m going to work in a school, actually. “

“I hope it’s a good one, or at least better that the ones where I’m from. It feels strange to say that. It is where I’m from, but it’s not really where I grew up.”

“This school has only been around for a few years. It’s a private school that this couple my parents knew from seminary started.”

“Is your father a minister?”

“Yeah. Well, he was. He died last week.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that. Was your family all right with you leaving so soon after his passing?”

“It was hard for them, and it is for me, too, but it’s what my dad wanted. The last time I visited him, he whispered a Bible verse to me. He only said the reference, actually. He was too weak to put more than a couple of words together.”

“What verse was it?”

“It was Luke 9:60–”

“‘Let the dead bury their own dead,’” Aisha responded. “My parents are ministers, too.”

“Yeah, that’s it. I’d been planning to go for months, of course, and when my dad got sick, it was too late to move my flight back. We couldn’t have afforded it. I was still going to postpone my whole trip, but he didn’t want me to. His funeral was yesterday. The burial service is today.”

“Wow. I don’t think I could have done that. It’s been so long since I’ve seen my real parents, of course, but I lived with that same couple the whole time I was over here. If either one of them died, I don’t know what I would do. I sure wouldn’t be able to just move on with my life like you, though. I love them.” Aisha stopped. “Oh, I didn’t mean that. I’m sure you loved your dad, is what I mean. I guess going when you knew he wanted you to is just another way to show that, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

The plane had finished taxiing across the tarmac and was now accelerating down the runway. Mort had never gotten used to the sensation, and sitting in the center section of the cabin made it worse. When he had a window, he could at least correlate the feeling of speed against the objects passing by outside, but now his only confirmation that the plane was moving was the light pressure on his chest and the somehow distant rumble of the engines. Propellers lifting them into the sky should be an overpowering sound, not a noise dampened and blunted into meekness. It was like a laryngitic lion, a concept so incongruous it was impossible to put your full faith behind it.

They took off. He knew because the landing gear stopped bouncing. He was always surprised when the wheels did not buckle under the weight of the plane. Something so large should have required supporters from every side to bear it forward, much more than a few small tires could provide.

“What kind of doctor are you?” Mort asked in the middle of their ascent.

“My specialty was internal medicine, if that’s what you’re asking. It’s more rounded than being a surgeon or just focusing on one part of the body. I’ll be able to help more people this way. Well, that’s the plan, at least.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve only worked in US hospitals. Whenever I needed more supplies, I just sent an intern to a supply closet to get them. That’s not exactly how it’s going to work over there, obviously. It will be an adjustment, but I’ll be okay once I get used to it, I suppose.”

The plane reached cruising altitude and leveled off, taking with it the impression they were headed upwards, towards something. Now all they had to look forward to was hours of virtually unconscious travel; the automatic pilot had taken control, and even if Mort were next to a window, looking out of it would give him no indication of how much farther they had to go.


Mort’s first indication that something was wrong was the oxygen mask falling on his slumped-over head. There had certainly been earlier warnings, but he must have slept through them, even though he could not remember falling asleep or even closing his eyes. Aisha, who must have paid closer attention to the flight attendant’s demonstration than he had, already had her mask in place. He turned to check on the passenger on his right, and realized with a tremor that this was the first time he had looked at him. The man had a bleeding head wound. The floor beside him was littered with socks, shirts, pants, books, and toiletries; the overhead compartment lay open, its contents exploded everywhere. Mort saw the bloody corner of a hardcover book lying in the mess. He could not read the title, but nevertheless felt certain it had caused the man’s injury. He tried to shake him awake, but the man would not rouse. A few rows behind him, a steward tried to push his cart down the aisle, but the wheels could not navigate the spilled carry-ons. Every five seconds, he called out, “Coffee, tea, water, grape juice,” as if it would help someone.

The captain’s voice came over the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen, you should see an oxygen mask in front of you. Put it on if you feel like it, but to be honest, it’s not going to make any difference. It’s much too late for me to do anything about this storm now. I’m sorry to tell you we’re going to crash, and since we’re over the ocean, no one’s going to rescue us. This is normally when I’d tell you to enjoy the rest of your flight, but that isn’t going to help anyone either, so I won’t bother. Instead, I’m going to sing some Air Supply songs a capella, because I think we could all use a laugh about now. If you haven’t already put on your oxygen masks, feel free to sing along.”

The passenger on Mort’s right was no longer bleeding from his head, although he did have tubes coming out of his nose and an IV line in his wrist. The greatest shock, though, was that he had failed to identify the man as his father. On his left, Aisha had disappeared, and in her place sat Mort’s mother, whose dress was remarkably similar to Aisha’s, but differed in some way he could not identify. Perhaps the only difference was the person wearing it.

Her lips were moving, but Mort could not hear her over the disintegration of the plane around them. He leaned closer and closer, until finally his head rested on her shoulder and he heard her singing, “I’m all out of love, I’m so lost without you. I know you were right believing for so long. I’m all out of love, what am I without you? I can’t be too late to say that I was so wrong.”

The steward finally moved forward after the wing tore free from the plane, taking the cabin wall with it, along with the scattered luggage and several passengers. Mort could not hear him, but he appeared to be still repeating his litany of drinks. He seemed unaware of the disaster, so focused was he on his task.

They crashed in the water, briefly skimming along the surface, but beginning to sink before long. The water level rose from shoe to collar in scarcely more than a minute, and then it was over their heads. The water did not stop Mort’s mother from singing, and now that the turbulence was over, he heard the rest of the plane singing along with her. Even the steward, his round with the drinks completed, joined in on the final chorus.

Mort wondered where Aisha was, and how she had escaped the singing and the noise.


Something was tapping Mort’s shoulder. His consciousness reacquainted itself with the outside world reluctantly, and he eventually associated the quality of this particular tapping with the shape of a finger. A female finger, if he was not mistaken. He opened his eyes to confirm his theory.

“You must have been exhausted,” Aisha said.

“What do you mean?” “We just landed. You slept for almost the entire flight.”

Mort allowed himself a sigh. “Oh, okay.”

“Did you think I was talking about something else?”

“Nothing happened during the flight, did it? No storms or turbulence or anything?”

“No. It was a really boring flight, actually. Nothing happened.”

“It was a dream, then,” he said to himself.

“Hey, are you all right? You kind of disappeared for a second.”

“Oh, yeah. I’m okay. Just waking up, I guess.”

“Okay. Well, it’s our row’s turn to leave, so I guess we should get up.”

“Yeah. All right.”

No one had opened their windows during the descent, so as they made their way toward the exit, the same milky dusk, combining the cream-colored ceiling with the blue-gray seats, hung diffused throughout the plane. After he shook the pilot’s hand, Mort turned back to view the plane a final time. It was almost empty now, the last remaining passengers were in line behind him, but one of them would not leave. The man seated beside Mort in his dream had to stay in that space. As he walked up the tunnel into the terminal, Mort missed him.

That day’s scheduled flight to Bamako had been canceled, as had Aisha’s flight to Lagos. They waited in line for their hotel vouchers, and then for their luggage to appear on the conveyor. Mort had nearly excessed the weight limit with his. Aisha flagged down a taxi and they got in together, splitting the fare to the City of Lights.