a literary review
Skull Discovered in Nebraska Almost Certainly Not D.B. Cooper’s
Scientists explain the way the world
pulls us to its skin, the way the stars
bombard us, out of time, already dead
but shining still. Tired metaphors abound —
attraction between people: gravity;
and memory is like a star’s last light
burning across our years. But how to explain
the pull of you? Who’ll quantify my keen,
obsessive urge towards an empty skull
that’s nestled in a hatbox in Nebraska?
Like the flight recorder, any skull’s
a black box full of memory. I want
to open this one, force it at the seams
with something sharp and see just what unfurls.
It doesn’t matter that the skull turns out
after certain tests, not to be yours.
My American imagination is stronger even
than science; my wild desire elbows the facts
out of its way and will not be dissuaded.
Once, I read another story in the paper
about a woman in Egypt who dug up
her long-dead husband’s skull because she felt
lonely. In my small way, I empathize.
A close second in size to my imagination
is my American loneliness. A skull
in a hatbox, in a garage, in Cozad
Nebraska, on the hundredth meridian,
dead center in the country . . . none of it
is you, and yet it’s you raising my brow
at an item in the news. Elsie Rogers
found it first on the Columbia River,
thought it Injun’, and therefore fair game
as a souvenir of her trip out West.
Now, message in a bottle, it has washed
up on the newsprint shore of my obsession.
For untold years, I’ve hoarded and feasted
on dozens of such scraps, re-thumbed soft like
a tattered package of skyjacked twenties,
my own small dowry of nostalgia, unspent.
D.B. Cooper’s Last Cigarette
Loving a last cigarette, he tries to blow smoke
into the screaming air and straps on the parachute.
Ten thousand feet below him, a dark expanse of wilderness
blanked with the autumn storm that fuzzes like TV
static. He and another chute are strapped with cash,
but he hasn’t really contemplated history
yet, because a man can’t tell or even see his story
until empty planes land, until storms end and smoke
clears, pulling back its velvet curtain. It’s too soon to cash
in on anything — he can’t count his parachutes
until they hatch. It’s not real — none of it — till TV
says so, not true until a sudden and thorny wilderness
of questions blooms, not until that wilderness
swallows the whole bulk of it. In history
class, tragically, we never learn how much TV
can love and birth us with its rapid-fire smoke
and mirrors. In math, a generic parachute
falls X feet, travels Y distance, through a cache
of numbers that always equal safe landing. This cash
adds up, too — but differently, an algebraic wilderness
of quantum realities and futures: will the parachute
open as it promises? Will the future’s unraveling history
remember the last cigarette down to brand name, its smoke
and windblown ashes a footnote among hundreds of TV
stories? Will he be brilliantly portrayed and invented by TV?
Will slick, frenzied storytellers sprint to cash
in on the folksy fact that he’s mere smoke,
a ghost lost or happily traveling the wilderness
between tall tale, parable, and history?
He tightens the nylon straps of his parachute,
and briefly realizes that he is the parachute,
about to (he hopes) billow open. Later, on TV,
a broadcaster will remake Cooper’s story his story.
Agents will start scouring the woods for the cash,
sniffing and digging, combing the wet, evergreen wilderness
for clues that point to Cooper: a chute, a shoe, a campfire’s smoke.
He blows final smoke into the open parachute
as it bears him down into the wilderness. No TV,
just the cash and him. Chutes pull taut, and he’s history.
~ ~ ~
Liz Ahl is the author of the chapbooks, Talking About the Weather (Seven Kitchens Press, 2012), Luck (Pecan Grove Press, 2010), and A Thirst That’s Partly Mine, which won the 2008 Slapering Hol Press chapbook contest. Her work has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Measure, Blast Furnace, Crab Orchard Review, and Conclave. Luck was recipient of the 2012 New Hampshire Literary Awards “Reader’s Choice” award in poetry. She has been awarded residencies at Jentel, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Holderness, New Hampshire and is a professor of English at Plymouth State University.