Fifty Ways to Fly

Fifty Ways to Fly

Title: Fifty Ways to Fly

Editor: Alison Hill

Review by Jade Craddock

Following the brilliantly trailblazing poetry anthology Sisters in Spitfires, which brought together verse celebrating the women of the Air Transport Auxiliary, Alison Hill returns to the subject of flight in her latest collection, Fifty Ways to Fly.

Again, there is a strong female emphasis to the collection, with the book helping to support the British Women Pilots’ Association, a non-profit organisation ‘that exists to support women who fly or who are learning to fly, and to encourage participation in aviation by women who have yet to try it’ and was founded by the female pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary. But the anthology is not only about or consists of women and flight, it spans the sexes and the generations to, as the title suggests, explore the different ways to fly. Indeed, the poets in this anthology really get into the spirit of the book’s intent, examining not only the most obvious of definitions – mechanical flight – but also aviation of a more mythical and spiritual kind, as well of course of a more avian kind.

It is an avian approach that Robyn Bolam pursues in her poem ‘Anne Boleyn Desires Wings’, a dramatic monologue in which the second wife of Henry VIII is given voice as she plays witness to her husband’s favourite pastime of falconry. As she watches the powerful, majestic birds in flight, she is inspired to wish for her own wings as ‘we women do, to fly/ without feathers, free of earth, to feel no-one’s/ restraint, not even a king’s’.

Beautiful diversity

As is the beautiful diversity that epitomises this collection, the anthology moves from the real birds of the sixteenth century of Anne Boleyn in Robyn Bolam’s poem to the mechanical birds of the twentieth century in Annie Taylor’s ‘Concorde’. And this juxtaposition of moments and moods is repeated across the anthology in its entirety, creating a brilliantly eclectic set piece. At one point the collection joins together a poem about hang-gliders by Merryn Williams, a poem about kites by Carolyn O’Connell, a poem about starlings by Rebecca Gethin and a poem about ladybirds by Susan Utting.

Utting’s poem ‘Ladybird Summer’ is an absolute joy, not only does it reflect the ingenuity of its author who pays tribute to this unassuming species, but it is a beautifully evocative poem, ending with the most dazzling of visions: ‘a swarm, a partial eclipse, a descent/ a lacquer of red, yellow, orange, peppered black’. Isabel Bermudez delivers a similarly sensory read in her poem ‘The Butterfly House’ but it is the way the beauty of the butterflies contrasts with the brutality of the human world that defines her verse. Julie Reay’s ‘Flying Rules’ gives a whole history of flight from the dinosaurs to Leonardo da Vinci through the Wright brothers to astronauts, but in a poem of wonder and inspiration it is the mournful lines that ring out: ‘death and destruction, heroics and awe/ planes delivered bombs, devastation and hell’. Beryl Myers’ poem ‘One Summer’ similarly evokes this duality between the magnificence of flight and its military connotations, which is captured wonderfully in what to me are amongst the most powerful of lines in this epic anthology: ‘Grinning faces, clearly seen,/ through open bomb doors’. And former British pilot in the ATA, Pauline Gower MBE, uses a nursery-rhyme style incantation in what is a cleverly constructed poem about the dangers of flight, ‘Ten Little Aeroplanes’.

Inspiration

There are poems of inspiration and hope too. Ian Duhig’s ‘The Last Testament of Amy Johnson’ adopts the voice of the eminent British pilot as he explores the battles Johnson faced on the ground and the ways in which she rose above them, both literally and metaphorically, through flying. It is a powerful reminder of the strength and character of these early female aviation pioneers, whilst Angela Riddle’s ‘My Flight with Tracey Curtis-Taylor’ speaks of the new generation of female pilots who continue to blaze their own trails.

Patricia Hill’s ‘Looping the Loop’ is a poignant reminiscence of the thrills of flight, whilst Judith Watts’ ‘Girl On a Swing’ is a wonderful example of the ekphrastic tradition in poetry, and the skill in at once honouring the original work whilst at the same time giving new resonance to it. Ian Bingham’s ‘Dad and Jet’ is a touching sonnet, that is both a tribute of a son’s love and pride for his father and a reminder of the aspirational nature of flight.

But it is perhaps Maggie Sawkins’ eponymous poem that sums up the creative flights of imagination that underpin this soaring anthology. Her poem gives a numbered list, outlining fifty very different ways to fly – none of which include just hopping on board a plane. The nearest Sawkins’ poem comes in this regard is the suggestion of hiring a jumbo jet, but it is the other musings in the poem – the wild and wacky (‘launch yourself from a catapult’), the offbeat and oblique (become a pancake) – that really define the vision of not only this verse but the entire collection, as each poet in turn thinks outside the metal box to conjure new and unusual ways of discussing aviation. From miniscule ladybirds to gargantuan dinosaurs, from fabric kites to mechanical planes, from hang-gliders to swings, and everything in between, this collection celebrates the many and varied ways of flight, but it is what flight represents particularly to us earth-bound humans that defines the spirit of this anthology. Flight is not only about planes and jets, it is about aiming high, pushing boundaries and achieving the unthinkable; it is about freedom, hope and optimism; and it is about being creative, imaginative and unfettered, just as every one of the poets whose poems feature in the anthology demonstrate in their soaring verse. But if all else fails, you can do as Maggie Sawkins suggests, and audition for Peter Pan!

Review by Jade Craddock

Fifty Ways to Fly, R&M, £8.99 
Copies available direct from alison-hill@blueyonder.co.uk

 

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