Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

A Yatra for Yama

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

A Yatra for Yama

Article excerpt

in memory of Peter Flanders

I.

I have them on the desk in front of me now, manila file folders with a faint and indescribable smell about them, compounded of the mildew of sixty years of humid Connecticut summers, of typewriter ink and old paper and the dried perspiration of those who wrote the letters these folders contain and the dried tears of those who received them, back when the suddenness of a letter received by surface mail could be sufficient to prompt tears. (I have never wept over an e-mail.) It is an attar of the past that seems to deepen and open out to the point of vertigo as I inhale it, at once familiar and strange, until I am balanced perfectly between intoxication and dread. These folders do not abide a casual attention; the past asserts itself in them as an imperative and a challenge. For to travel back into the past is to contemplate one's own extinction as well as that of one's ancestors.

In the National Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, there is a motto spelled out in small rounded stones at the feet of an image of the Buddha: "YOU SHOULD ABANDON ORIGINS."

In one of the manila folders, there is a Western Union telegram, dated July 11, 1944. It was delivered to my paternal grandmother. It reads:

THE NAVY DEPARTMENT DEEPLY REGRETS TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON LIEUTENANT (JG) KARL WENDELL KIRGHWEY JR USNR IS MISSING FOLLOWING ACTION IN THE PERFORMANCE OF HIS DUTY AND IN THE SERVICE OF HIS COUNTRY. THE DEPARTMENT APPRECIATES YOUR GREAT ANXIETY BUT DETAILS NOT NOW AVAILABLE AND DELAY IN RECEIPT THEREOF MUST NECESSARILY BE EXPECTED. TO PREVENT POSSIBLE AID TO OUR ENEMIES PLEASE DO NOT DIVULGETHE NAME OF HIS SHIP OR STATION.

VICE ADMIRAL RANDALL JACOBS THE CHIEF OF NAVAL PERSONNEL

The strips of teletype have yellowed less than the half-page on which they were glued; the violet ink is still clear and legible more than sixty years later. I wonder: What was my grandmother doing when she received this telegram? What were her last thoughts before answering the door? It is a situational cliché, the arrival of bad news in this way, made so by countless B-movies. Spielberg, popularizer and sentimentalist that he is, touched on it in Saving Private Ryan; Norman Rockwell would have painted it, if he hadn't been so dedicated to good news. But for my family the consequences of the arrival of this telegram were not what might have been predicted.

The uncle for whom I am named, my father's younger brother by two years, was his mother's favorite. He sculpted, painted, and played the violin; she preserved one of his musical compositions and one of his sculptures, a headless, armless nude female figure. There were life studies behind that sculpture: Flying and eros are linked not just in the subconscious. After a disciplinary infraction (parietals) at Harvard, he was told to redeem himself through good works before returning to school. He worked at an aircraft plant and learned to fly, joining the United States Naval Reserve (USNR). He trained as a fighter pilot at Squantum, Pensacola, and Corpus Christi, and in October 1943 he shipped out for the Pacific aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise with Fighting Squadron Ten, known as the Grim Reapers, their logo a diving skeleton in helmet and flying goggles, wielding a scythe. My uncle flew state-of-the-art aircraft, first an F4F Wildcat and then an F6F Hellcat. The latter plane, in particular, had been designed specifically to outperform the Japanese Zero fighter, and was heavily armor-plated, with a bulletproof windshield to protect the pilot. A Navy pilot is said to have remarked, "I love this airplane so much that if it could cook I'd marry it."

My father was the dutiful son. Like my namesake, he was wellliked by everyone, but he lacked what seems to have been his younger brother's Icarian flair. His eyesight wasn't good enough for him to become a pilot. Instead, he prepared pilots for the Army Air Force on Link trainers until he couldn't stand the boredom any more. …

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