Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet
by Tony Hoagland
Where It All Goes Down
This poem is packed with settings. We'll start with the first one: an airplane above Kansas, en route from Seattle to New York. We're sitting in one of those seats that's cushioned and still somehow uncomfortable. We're jammed between people, yet in our own little world, alone with our imagination. There's an in-flight movie, but it's that superhero one that disappeared from theaters in three weeks because, well, it was terrible. The words of the day are: bored, distracted, dissatisfied. So we drift into a memory…
Suddenly, we're in setting number two: a backyard, looking up at the trails of jets in the sky—those puffy white lines that stay engraved in the blue, even after the plane is gone. From our point of view, which is only about four feet off the ground, the business of flying seems awesome in just about every way.
Then we're back in setting number one—the plane—and we turn our attention to this book our speaker brought along called Moby-Dick. And we're not too caught up in the story of the book at the moment, but we are drawn into the idea of being one of the crew members on the ship…
Which brings us to setting number three: the deck of a ship, rolling on a rough sea. We've got a harpoon held overhead and we're staring down at the glint of a whale beneath the water, waiting for it to surface. We can feel the wind whipping salt water into our eyes. Our blood is pumping. And then we're done.
All these settings (plus the more abstract setting where our speaker asks us to imagine a century like a long corridor) are like different channels in our speaker's imagination. They're very different, but they all relate to our speaker's thoughts on life, on modern comforts, on safety and security, and on straight lines vs. wildness and danger and excitement. And he's got the mind space to travel to them all because he's stuck on an airplane, where he's got nothing better to do than to follow its imagination wherever it may roam.