What to make of Up in the Air? The poem shoots about from image to image, but there’s no coherent single scene, no narrative, no obvious sense. And yet, it’s a terrific poem!
It seems to me that each phrase implies the next phrase. At times, the links are no more than faint suggestions. For example in S1 and S2, there’s an alcoholic, which leads to a divorcée with a dogseat, which leads to “birds barking in the trees”, which leads to a heron on a river bank, which leads to ‘soul survivors’ from the Titanic, which leads to ‘My Girl’ (a soul classic), which leads to a dancing girl etc.
It’s impossible to say what the poem is ‘about’, but again I’d feel that it reflects an inner psychology, a sense of everything in the narrator’s life being ‘up in the air’, unsettled, blurred. There are so many brilliant lines and images in this poem, such a bizarre imagination at work, that the poem demands re-reading. I love the “alcoholic devotedly spooning/ pâté from a tub,” the girl dancing “like the alphabet/ mostly like the letter A,” the fingers as “sheep’s knuckle-bones dicing for the seamless garment” and the airport “with its complement of tiny, specialised, ministering/ vehicles.” Just fantastic stuff. My favourite section:
.................................................…I was Ajax,
I had stolen another man’s captive, slaughtered sheep
like a maniac, counted my friends till
I fell asleep, now I would have to swim for it
in the greasy, yellow, woollen waves…
This is unhinged madness and brilliance. Both conspire to inhabit every stanza of this poem.