This is one of my older poems. I wrote the draft of it on a plane on the way to Boston in 2002 to visit cousins and an elderly uncle whom I hadn’t seen in years. It was the first time I had flown since 9/11.
I wasn’t scared, exactly, but I was plenty uneasy.
Flying is not my favorite activity under the best of circumstances. But I was flying in the near-aftermath of the terror attacks, when everybody was on edge, and lots of other things down on the planet Earth below me made it seem as though order was collapsing.
This was the time when a sniper in a blue Caprice was shooting people randomly on Washington DC highways. Chechen rebels held 700 people hostage in a Moscow theatre, and the attempt to rescue them went horribly wrong. Bombs were routinely going off on Israeli busses.
The world seemed a tad nuts.
As it happened, I had assigned Jane Austen’s Emma to my Intro to Graduate Studies students that semester. I brought the book along to reread—and as we always say literature does, it took me out of myself and my worries and transported me into Austen’s world.
If you’ve read Austen, you know it’s very different from our own. Though her world was also in transition, her characters negotiated the changes with civility and grace
I tried to capture the differences—along with my yearning for a more orderly world—in the poem.
At the time, it seemed as if things couldn’t get any crazier.
Except today, 2020 says, “Hold my beer.”
There’s a new movie of Emma out, and I saw it last night. It was a decent translation of the book to film, with the exception of some casting choices I took issue with. (Note to producers: next time switch the actors who play Knightley and Robert Martin; if you’re going to use the great Bill Nighy, give him more to do).
It reminded me again why great novels like Emma hardly ever make great movies: novels are all about language, and no film can do justice to the sparkling wit of Austen.
But shifting into Austen’s world is still a serene experience as disease, financial catastrophe, corruption, and stupidity rage outside the darkened theatre.
It helps us realize that once there were people who were civil and agreeable to each other. And maybe there will be again.
Hope you enjoy “Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet.”
Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet
A voice from the flight deck mumbles—something
about the weather in Boston—as the plane lumbers
into the dawning day above it all,
the sniper’s nest in the blue Caprice, endless
wars, dead hostages, suicide bombers
blowing nailed starbursts through sunblind busses.
Jane, how I welcome your astringent lines, sly
as a measured throw of cards on green felt tables,
the ordered games of Hartfield after dinner
while poor cold Woodhouse worries over the dangers
of rich cakes, and pretty Emma schemes.
Sealed in steel dread six miles up, I enter
your safe art gladly, shaking the dust
of crumbling civilizations off my boot-soles.
[© 2005 Donald Levin. A version of this poem appeared in my poetry book, In Praise of Old Photographs (Little Poem Press, 2005; reprinted in Detroit Metro Times, November 23, 2005).]