Taking Flight: Aileen Ballantyne, Luath Press
The opening poem in this collection, ‘Full Moon’, should be regarded as an augury for a sequence later in the book. The poet is travelling on a Boeing 777:
I touched my leather rucksack,
safe beneath my seat,
my mother’s necklace,
Blue Grass perfume,
the turquoise ring,
assuring myself I had
all I needed.
These personal details matter, as we shall see. Aileen Ballantyne is a journalist who worked on the Guardian and the Sunday Times, and was a colleague of mine on the former paper. She was there at the time of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, and reported on it. The final section of this collection is a sequence of poems about that night and its aftermath, when 259 passengers and crew and 11 Lockerbie residents were killed. The final stanza of ‘Full Moon’ hints at a group of air passengers’ tragic vulnerability to an explosion in the sky:
Tilted forward in my seatbelt
to the porthole
I gazed full-on
at the great silver disc of the Moon,
the terrible press of thin cold glass
on my forehead.
But before that sequence, there are poems on many other subjects in this collection of more than 100 pages: starlings, birds of paradise, frigatebirds, Edinburgh’s RL Stevenson in Samoa, and a meeting between first world war veterans Harry Patch and Charles Kuentz at Ypres in 2004, that has echoes of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ in its title and content. In contrast, there is the new, modern warfare of ‘The Gamer’, in which a mother waves her children off to school, and then goes to work, points and clicks, and delivers death “half a world away”.
Aileen Ballantyne is fascinated by flight. Before the Lockerbie poems we have the section ‘A Meteor Shower’, with poems for the Apollo astronauts, including the ones that didn’t make it, a family poem that ends with a Concorde flying over a London garden, and a series of poignant poems about a sister who emigrated to Canada. There is also a poem about plagues, ‘Walking with Death: a Pocketful of Posies’, that is prescient in its menace:
I was here before you.
You think that if you name me
I will go away.
This is a collection that was published last year. It would be a fine collection even without the Lockerbie poems, from a confident and observant poet with a wide range of interests and subjects. But the sequence of poems about Pan Am flight 103 gives it another dimension. It comes partly from Aileen Ballantyne’s knowledge, as a reporter who worked on the story at the time. The poems contain details about the victims that could not be published in newspapers in 1988. Even now, I feel unable to quote some of those details. Not because I think the poet and journalist is wrong to include them, but because I believe some information should remain private, between poet and reader, rather than be quoted by a reviewer, in fragments. So I will quote some lines, and others, I won’t.
After the bomb explosion the aircraft wreckage took three minutes to fall from its five-mile altitude. ‘Rescue Worker’ contains the haunting image of passengers who knew they were plunging to earth, seen in the bodies of two young women
to their plane-seats,
tight round each other,
their fingers crossed.
‘On a hillside’ begins with an almost unimaginable list of what fell from the sky, “knives and forks / and tight-wrapped salts / and sugar-packs and hand-wipes”, as well as body parts. But it ends with a bond being created between a Lockerbie local who saw remains scattered around, and a bereaved relative. ‘Cakes and Scones’ is the stories of three Lockerbie women more recently recalling the aftermath days when refreshments were provided for those who had been searching for evidence:
They needed something like that
to keep them going
because they were only boys
because they were seeing terrible things
‘Rescuing the Rescuers’ continues this theme: “How does the wind steal a man’s belt? / How does the wind tear off a man’s clothes / Without leaving a mark?” The three Lockerbie women themselves had been among those who carefully, washed, pressed, folded and wrapped the clothes and effects of the victims, so that they could be returned to their loved ones.
A mother traces her son’s last journeys in ‘The Last Mother’; the poem ‘747’, with its sub-headings ‘As Strong as its Weakest Part’ and ‘Jigsaw’, takes a forensic look at the crash wreckage; and ‘Teapots’ focuses on two young people, one who caught the fateful flight, and another, running late, who took the next one instead. In 2008, the dogged crash investigator Robert Mueller quoted Robert Frost in a ceremony at Washington’s Arlington cemetery to remember the Lockerbie dead (‘The Investigator’).
Three of these Lockerbie poems were awarded first prize in the Mslexia competition. In retelling these stories, Aileen Ballantyne goes beyond journalism, and pays the dead due respect, with compassion, empathy, and poetic vision and skill.