Miles Above and Years Away by James Wilk

Miles Above and Years Away
James Wilk


My forehead leaves an oily spot
on the Plexiglas where I have been resting,
staring at the shadow of the fuselage,

how it crawls like a fuzzy caterpillar
across the Nebraskan grain fields
and gullies. I had been reading

how the Gestapo marched
Janusz Korczak, the author
of King Matthew the First,

and one-hundred-ninety-two orphans
in his care from the Warsaw Ghetto
to a train that took them to Treblinka;

how the author himself, a Schmeisser
submachine gun to his back, led
the procession, carrying five-year-old

Romcia in one arm, and holding
Szymonek Jakubowicz’s sweaty,
tremulous hand with the other;

how a boy my son’s age marched at the end
of the double file, waving the flag of King Matt,
a Magen David on a white field;

how all of them were gassed
that sunny August afternoon
with the exhaust from trucks.

And the troubles of the lovesick,
paunched and balding passenger above
and the castaway on the prairie sea below

wither away into the ether
like the trailing edge of a wingtip
at thirty-three-thousand feet.


Review by J.S. MacLean

This is a well crafted poem and the reader’s unexpected experience is well controlled by the poet. The opening image is odd and at the same time common. We have all put our foreheads to glass at some time so the image is immediate and internalized. The rest of the strophe puts us in a place, we are grounded, comfortable yet expectant… and we want to know. Strong underlying “s” sounds are an example of the skillful use of sonics throughout this poem.
The second strophe opens with a great simile, original and perfect…a shadow is cast from a great distance like that other from a far off time…then the poem moves comfortably on. This is the craft here as we inch towards something terrible, still undefined….maybe a metaphor for the German people in the mid 20th century.
I am taken along into the poem by the narrator as one reading a book…detached yet engaged. We may wonder why the narrator is reading this book but we still have a comfort level at this point. The detail from the reading material comes as a bit of a surprise perhaps but does not throw me out of the poem except perhaps in the double use of “author” which may or may not seem to refer to two different people. Many poems with specific references require that the reader know certain things beyond common knowledge to follow meaning but that does not happen here for me. The effective use of sonics continues as “r” sounds intrude.
The specific names and details about unfamiliar people set this reader up for this strophe;

how all of them were gassed
that sunny August afternoon
with the exhaust from trucks.

as the simple words and remarkable sounds slam us and transport us. I feel many readers will remember this passage and some would have the poem end on the recounting of this crime against humanity.
Some may express disappointment, with some justification, to the finish or feel dismissed by it where the narrator takes us back to the present and sets their own situation against a horrible historical low point. Others may object to the involved telling of an atrocity overpowering an ordinary tale of a lovesick man on a plane. I suppose that there are some stories that should be retold, lest we forget…and yet we are left always with ourselves, thoughts of our children, our losses, and perhaps an appreciation of what we still have.

Scroll to Top