“Aviatrix Tricks”: Thomas E. Simmons on C.L. Nehmer’s Finishing Line Press poetry collection The Alchemy of Planes

C.L. Nehmer’s debut book, The Alchemy of Planes, reflects on Amelia Earhart. It intercuts a birth-to-end biography with a handful of imagined—but for the most part historical—scenes. Those historical scenes include Earhart’s service in World War I, her love of flying, her marriage, and her celebrity. Earhart’s celebrity was well-earned. She was—to cite just one example—the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. She disappeared while attempting to circumnavigate the globe.

The work of a new but confident poet whose verses are at once readable and intimate, this collection of poems paints with striking imagery and skillfully evokes Earhart’s character— a “crackerjack with her rucksack,” Nehmer writes. In “An Attempt at Howland, From the West July 2, 1937” Nehmer effectively channels Earhart, insisting that she

… pulls fear
out by its caw   demands a look

out by its caw   demands a look
her windshield     toward it …

In these four lines, as much is revealed of Earhart as in thirty pages of prose. Still, the greatest technical challenge to a poetry collection simultaneously functioning as a nonfiction biography is how to go about establishing context and connective tissue. Too much exposition—sometimes even just a dash of it—can weigh a poem down.

This is less of a problem with better known narratives. With Christ on the cross, George Washington chopping at a sapling, or Earhart’s missing person status, a single poetic brushstroke may be sufficient to orient us. With lesser known scenes or unfamiliar links in the narrative, the poet risks overburdening stanzas with explanation. Few flaws are as consistently toxic. At the same time, a biographical poem robbed of its context feels opaque and unmoored.

Sometimes, the poem’s title can provide an adequate environ. And in other instances, the exposition can be artfully incorporated. But generally, expository ballast risks a sunken poem. A little exposition goes a long way, and sometimes the poem can bear none of it.

Take, for example, Nehmer’s poem, “Alma Mater Statue.” It reads, in full:

Two hat brims bow, nearly
touch in the bronze lap of
Athena–between them
only Browning and a
paper bag of cherries.

The poem is light, nostalgic, visually engaging, but—without additional context—obscure.

Nehmer bisects the principal Gordian knot of nonfiction poetry with a prose Forward in which she supplies a biographical jot of Earhart’s life story. There, we find just enough signposting to anchor the “Alma Mater Statute poem without capsizing it. It explains:

After the Armistice, Amelia enrolled as a premed student at Columbia University in New York (7). In her book, The Fun of It, Earhart recalled, “I think I explored every nook and cranny possible. I have sat in the lap of the gilded statute which decorates the library steps …”

The parenthetical number seven in the quoted passage refers to the page on which “Alma Mater Statute is found. The collection’s Forward thereby supplies endnotes of a sort, but with their placement in advance of the poems. Thus, they can provide the necessary narrative backbone and background.

We can easily page back to the Forward and locate the appropriate context by means of the parenthetical numbers which refer to each poem’s location in the book. In this fashion, Nehmer’s neat trick (she is not the first to employ it) gets all of the exposition out of the way at once in prose—using a language better suited to this function than verse. The exposition can then grant breathing space to the poems.

With the prose of the Forward as an added overlay to “Alma Mater Statue,” the poem’s obscurity resolves into focus and the poem can be translated. Earhart herself finds her way onto the bronze Athena. Wearing a man’s hat, curled up in the Columbia statue’s lap, reading Robert Browning, it is her who is enjoying a bag of cherries. Still, a blurriness—surely intentional—remains. To whom belongs the second hat brim nearly touching Earhart’s? Who is sharing her paper bag of fruit? The ambiguity which remains is weightless and poignant.

Two reproduced photographs of Earhart in the collection supply further backdrops. Nehmer also relies on the technique of expository titles on occasion. The title to her poem “Charles Lindberg’s Solo Flight–New York to Paris May 21, 1927” is more than half as long as of the poem. Though most of the poems are longer than “Lindberg” and “Alma Matter”, all occupy less than a page. The poems do not adhere to any formal structure, but none could be characterized as experimental, either.

Multiple narrators are permitted onto the stage, including Earhart herself. A fictionalized fan letter addressing Earhart is allowed a few brief lines, including these, from “Unsolicited Tip”:

You look quite like a cave
woman in this photo
from yesterday’s paper.
Won’t you please comb your hair

In The Alchemy of Planes, Nehmer has Earhart admonish us to “follow your visceral compass.” Earhart was the kind of aviator whose cockpit compass aligned with her internal needle, whose courage inspired many, and whose disappearance still grieves us. Nehmer’s linear cinematic poems recognize the celebrity, the aviator, and her history as well, while leaving enough mystery to generate an attractive shimmer on the runway.

The Alchemy of Planes: Amelia Earhart’s Life in Verse, by C.L. Nehmer. Georgetown, Kentucky: Finishing Line Press, October 2020. 60 pages. $19.99, paper.

Thomas E. Simmons is the author of Tod Browning Loose-Leaf Encyclopedia (Cyberwit, 2020). He is a law professor at the Knudson School of Law in Vermillion, South Dakota. Most of his scholarship concerns inheritance, incompetence, and death.

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