Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991-93)
What could be cuter than contemplation?
Quick: describe an airport with an adjective that begins with “A.”
Awful? Agonizing? Aggravating?
Did anyone say “adorable”?
Jacqueline Lyons did. And Adorable Airport, her fourth book of poems, makes a strong case for the unexpected title.
From its cover, a painting of the inside of an airport with its gentle greens and blues, its escalators and baggage carousels, and its contented characters, Lyons’ book appears aimed at children. But only a very precocious child would understand and appreciate Lyons’ sophisticated and enchanting musings on time, seasons, love, and, yes, airports.
Like Lyons’ book, an airport is a stop between places, between going and coming, between home and holiday. Adorable Airport suspends time in order to reflect on it the way one might find oneself reflecting between flights in an actual airport.
Take, for example, one of the longest poems in the book, “Lineage,” which isn’t so much a reflection on the author’s birth as it is on her parents as they were before her birth. Mostly her parents come to us not in concrete detail but in fanciful lines that, to be understood (or at least for us to have a chance of understanding), we’ll need to puzzle over.
From the seventh part of the nine-part poem:
Before I was born my mother was a cross-stitch, a mobile, a barometer, a weather vane
Before I was born my father was a lockbox, a funnel, a
speedometer, a pressure gauge
What do these lines say about the speaker’s parents? “Lockbox” suggests someone who isn’t likely to share his feelings. “Mobile” suggests someone who has many facets to which people are drawn. Indeed, the extended portrait of her parents show her father as elusive, quiet, and driven by work and her mother as social, romantic, and inquisitive.
From part three:
Before I was born, my father put shovel to soil, axe to wood,
sledgehammer to rock
Before I was born, my mother arranged her feet every night at
the foot of the bed pointing WEST
The speaker’s father, it seems, is intent on remaining in his current home, thus his commandeering of soil, wood, and rock, his shaping of the landscape. Her mother, on the other hand, appears to be contemplating adventure elsewhere. Throughout the poem, however, she is reticent to share her dreams or speak plainly about her feelings.
From part seven:
Before I was born no one told my mother to stand up
straight, so in every photo her shoulders block her heart
Curiously, the speaker’s sister makes only a single appearance in the poem, in the sixth section. Before the speaker’s birth, her sister “paddled out in front” of her parents, her father unwilling to venture into water any higher than waist deep and her mother afraid of freeway traffic that feels to her “like a dangerous current.”
Why doesn’t the speaker’s sister have a more prominent role in the poem? Perhaps the speaker didn’t find her as compelling as her parents. Or perhaps in paddling “out in front”— apart from the family — she played a minor role in the speaker’s life.
“Lineage” functions as a biography of the speaker’s parents, with each line adding to their portraits. If it feels longer than its ten pages, it’s because each stanza demands reflection. What, for instance, should we make of this stand-alone line from section four:
Before I was born, my parents might have flipped a coin
Was the coin toss about whether to have another child?
Adorable Airport is divided into four sections, with each section grounded in a season. (It begins in winter and ends in fall.) The title poem, one of my favorites in the collection, functions as a prologue, hinting not only at the content of poems to come, but at the playful style the poet often employs. The cat in the fourth stanza is not to be missed.
Other favorites: “Adorable Airport (September forever),” which, like its title promises, invokes a month that will seemingly never end. It’s as if September is a flight delayed indefinitely:
Halfway through I try to like September get it
to like me & for a while it seems — but then
wild plums — out of reach in an early freeze
In “My Life in Quebec,” the speaker imagines the life she would have lead had she been born in Canada. It’s a whimsical but poignant poem, and it is enhanced by the poet’s liberal sprinkling of French words and phrases throughout the work:
If I lived in Quebec I would travel
to Saskatchewan and visit mes amies mes
bons vivants on their farm outside of Saskatoon.
(I am not the only reader fond of this poem. It won the Indiana Review Poetry Prize.)
The love poems in Adorable Airport take a realistic look at the subject. The beloved in “Adorable Airport (let me),” for example, uses his hands not to grip the steering wheel of the car he’s driving, but to point out the sites to his passenger. (His knees do the steering.) In short, he isn’t perfect. Meanwhile, the speaker of the poem is reticent to confess her feelings for her beloved — at least while he’s conscious: “I told him I loved him though he was/asleep.” His faults are contained, however, to “once or twice a month.” If it’s not a match made in heaven, it’s close enough. Even Shakespeare, or maybe especially Shakespeare, knew the limits of romantic love. (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”) Lyons invokes Shakespeare in several poems. The Talking Heads make an appearance too, as Lyons borrows a line from their song “Heaven.” (Is heaven, which according to the Talking Heads is a place “where nothing happens,” an “adorable airport”?)
I can’t resist this advice: Bring Adorable Airport on your next trip. As you’re waiting for your plane to board, and between announcements about gate changes and unattended baggage, dive into this gem-filled collection. Relax and enjoy some contented contemplation.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of eight books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, The Rink Girl: Stories, won the 2018 Prize Americana (Hollywood Books).