Saturday, June 29, 2013

Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart: An Example for How to Use Persona Poems to Write about History and Current Events

I live on the Ohio River, and outside my bedroom window I have been watching the construction of a new bridge. It is the only bridge on this part of the river for roughly 40 miles, so it is significant in many ways to my community. The importance of this new bridge, as well as the old one, has inspired numerous poems lately, and I hope to compile them into a chapbook.

I have mostly explored the bridge from the first person point of view, and all the poems are rooted in my personal experience. I have some familial ties to the history of the old bridge, currently being demolished, and I have personal ties to individuals working on the new bridge. As I dive deeper into this project, I have considered using the persona poem to add depth and complexity to this subject.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart recently inspired me. In particular, in her cycle of persona poems surrounding the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, Calvocoressi is able to use unique, historical perspectives to explore universal themes.  In poem V. of the “Amelia Earhart” cycle, “Doris Luman, housewife,” a witness poem becomes a meditation on loss from the perspective of a wife and mother. The speaker is responding to the news of Earhart’s disappearance and nonchalantly discusses loss as an everyday occurrence. One immediately thinks of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” wherein the poet claims loss is not a disaster, although it may seem to be at times.  The first line of Calvocoressi’s poem is similar:

It’s easy to lose someone. Last
week, walking my son to school,
I turned away for a second.

The next thing I know he’s in the street. (1-4).
In this poem, the housewife is clearly more concerned with what is happening in her domestic sphere than with public figures.  Choosing the housewife as one of the personas allows Calvocoressi to take the exploration of loss to an unexpected place: the home. The ultimate human notion of safety revolves around the home, and the speaker in this poem is turning that notion on its head. The poem moves inward, and the meditation on loss dives into the themes of safety and permanence:
You can lose a person at home

            In the safest possible place,
            a place you could walk blindfolded.
that’s why I wasn’t surprised

when that woman got lost. (12-16)
The speaker refers to Earhart as “that woman,” a telling detail in the speaker’s reaction to the news of Earhart’s disappearance. Tragedies happen in the sky and they happen inside the home, and it is not the magnitude of the setting that dictates the severity of its effects the human mind.

These poems lend a personal context to the events surrounding a celebrity. By using different personas to look at Earhart’s disappearance, Calvocoressi allows room for truths to emerge that speak to the human condition and go well beyond the historical event. If the poet had only allowed her own reactions to Earhart’s story to be the subject of these poems, they would be missing the depth and diversity of human experience that gives these poems their universal appeal.

I hope that my bridge poems can explore my particular experience with a highly public happening while achieving some kind of balance with those themes on a universal level. Reading Calvocoressi’s persona poems, I was moved to reach deeper into my speakers’ dreams, memories and, sometimes, darkest thoughts. Diving into the subconscious via the persona poems in the style of Calvocoressi seems like a promising avenue to take my “bridge poems” to the next level. 

Angela Elles is a resident of Madison, Indiana. A mom, wife, teacher, and student, Angela teaches at Ivy Tech Community College and is pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Spalding University.