• On the Lost Lyric Poetry of
    Amelia Earhart

    A Missing Pilot and Her Poems

    Final drafts of poems are a pleasure to undress, especially if earlier drafts can be found. Poems keep their secrets so well, but when I peek behind the final presentation and see the doubts and corrections it thrills me with a sense of intimacy. The first poem, “From an Airplane,” in Earhart’s Poetry submission situates her in the sky. In 1921, Amelia was living with her parents in Los Angeles and taking flying lessons. Though people now take for granted the view from a plane, this sight was once the rare vision of flight hobbyists and stunt pilots. 

    Even the watchful purple hills
    That hold the lake
    Could not see so well as I
    The stain of evening
    Creeping from its heart;
    Nor the round yellow eyes of the hamlet
    Growing filmy with mists. 

    Earlier drafts of “From an Airplane” have only small secrets to disclose. Earhart makes careful edits, altering the final line of “the hamlet blinks thru the mists” to “growing filmy with mists.” She reorders the first few lines, revising towards clarity rather than hiding more securely in her poem. However, on the back of drafts are bolder secrets. Earhart practiced writing her pseudonym several times, and fragments on one of the drafting pages read: “some must / with closed eyes of horror”; “the focused horror of death’s approach”; “with a great desire / for another glimpse.”

    These fragments on death don’t seem to correspond with anything in her Poetry submission. I like to imagine they were notes towards a poem she never wrote, or notes on a poem that vanished and left only these wayward lines. 

    Longhand drafts of earlier versions of her other poems in the Poetry submission were also kept with the final draft, including an earlier copy of “Palm Trees,” which once had the tantalizing title “Traitor.” Her earlier drafts show a fixation on the tree, and although the draft titled “Traitor” ends “Although the soul, wide-eyed, has looked on death / and escaped,” her revision eases away from death to an examination of the palm tree—normally a sight of sunshine and ease, but here rendered brittle and crackling. 

    Like crackling icicles
    Your brittle sword-branches
    Rattle in the small breezes
    Of thick warm nights. 

    Knowing nothing of cold
    Is it with the malice of ignorance
    That you chill
    The thick, warm dream
    Of souls uneasy at discomfort? 

    An obsession with death pervades many of the other remaining fragments. Although she was young at the time of her submission, she’d already served as a nurse in Canada during World War I (and suffered a long illness afterwards), and in the early days of aviation the mortality rate for pilots was grim. In her short life she lost many friends to plane accidents, and shortly after learning how to fly, she took stunting lessons.

    She wasn’t interested in performing in aerial shows, but stunting is a mimicry of failure, of deadfalls and simulating lack of control, and it is only the mastery of the stunt pilots that lets them pull out of danger. As she describes in her own book, Fun of It, she knew she couldn’t really learn to fly without learning what it feels like to come that near to death. 

    Intimacy is always an act of imagination and full of the tempting belief you can know a person in a way they haven’t been known before.

    There are some secrets a marriage should keep even after the marriage has ended. Amelia Earhart’s official photographer, Al Bresnik, claimed in Sound of Wings that when he stopped by to show her some photos before she left for her ill-fated second attempt at a world flight, Earhart said to him that there was “a possibility she was pregnant and that when she came back she was going to be ‘just a woman.’” It was well documented that Earhart was sick on her final flight, though it was attributed to food poisoning.

    If Amelia told George she suspected she was pregnant, he never disclosed it in his memoir or in any other record. If it was true, perhaps it was a secret she kept, for the most part, to herself. A fear or hope or simply a fact she didn’t have a feeling for yet. I’ve had the same secret, for a moment been alone in that singular knowledge of my body. I shared the news quickly, but it was a delicious pleasure at first, that privilege of knowing.

    Though it seems strange to me that Earhart would confide in a photographer a secret as personal as a potential pregnancy, sometimes the pressures of a secret make it easier to confide in a near stranger, someone with less investment in intimacy who might feel no need to persuade the person confessing or suggest a course of action. However, Amelia was famously guarded and, as Putnam notes in Soaring Wings, often mentioned a fake daughter’s name in interviews, an invisible friend she’d made up with her sister Muriel as a child—a name she used to fend off journalists if they pried too deeply, a ghost of a girl she used to protect herself from questions she did not want to answer. 

    When the search for Amelia’s plane was finally abandoned, George held out hope long past reason for her recovery. Yet when he accepted her vanishing and memorialized her, he didn’t use poetry; he used fragments from her log book, which can be found in the Purdue archives: “the light of the exhaust is beginning to show as pink as the last glow of the sky. Endless foggies. The view is too vast and lovely for words . . . I am getting housemaid’s knee, kneeling here gulping beauty.”

    I think excerpts from a flight logbook seemed a more fitting tribute, but it’s tempting to believe he still held those poetic fragments on scrap paper to be sacred. Or perhaps all that remained was too splintered, mysterious scrawls with numerous redactions and illegible line endings. One draft contains many versions of the line “golden passion with ashes on her wings,” with scansion marks above the various versions, trying to get the line right. One changes the title “Jealousy” to “Surrender,” and perhaps those attitudes of anger and submission were too great to know what she might secretly be saying.

    Perhaps George decided her poems, which he called “those brave commencements on stray scraps of paper,” were best left as clues among her letters. Something unsolvable, unknowable, a mystery he may have never fully understood about her, a mystery I can’t help but try to solve or at least get closer to. Intimacy is always an act of imagination and full of the tempting belief you can know a person in a way they haven’t been known before. 

    Putnam was a man who loved publicity, often doing stunts to promote his publishing ventures. He once claimed to have received threatening letters for publishing a book about Mussolini and even faked his own kidnapping to gain media attention for a book he was writing, The Man Who Killed Hitler. He loved the spotlight, and yet I like to believe that he loved his wife more. Their contemporaries often conjectured that their marriage was a business arrangement, though people often do not believe in an intimacy that is not performed lavishly in front of them. According to family and his ex-wives, George was uxorious in all four of his marriages.

    He admits that Amelia turned him down several times when he proposed and required that the wedding stay small and secret. While he accepted Earhart’s terms for marriage in her prenuptial letter, he was, as Lovell points out in Sound of Wings, “a romantic at heart, he wanted marriage with the woman he loved and to be a full partner in every sense of the word.” Even if he may not have loved receiving a letter requesting an open marriage and a firm request for privacy of their joys and difficulties, George consented to those terms and—as is true in many marriages—mostly kept his word. 

    Writing about Amelia’s premonitions about death in his memoir, George described an intimate but not transgressive moment in their marriage, a small exchange one evening about the difficulty of growing old. He did not expose her poems, which constantly circle the subject of death. The unfinished poem with the most drafts in Earhart’s papers is titled “Carrion.” One early draft appears on stationary for the New York Evening Journal. I trace the heavy inked script curled across the folds in the paper through its cellophane sheet, trying to see how Earhart’s hand moved.

    The poem appears to have originally been titled “Steps” and begins “the soft flesh of old age, char d’enfant, difference under caresses women are languorous as cats / Stars return the tall-blossomed apple trees.” The poem resembles little of its later drafts until the middle of the page, which reads: “arid on the hot sands the panther paws of love have buried the flesh . . .” At the end she writes: “Panther paws of love. / Obliterating(?) Pity(?) [illegible]. It’s because it obliterates its only kindness possible.”

    She questions what her poem is about, trying to understand the secrets the images and metaphors are keeping from her. This is so often true of my own process. I feel the pleasure of discovery, believing I understand something about her perhaps no one else has. I succumb to the temptation to impose myself on her redactions, to edit in my own sentiments. It’s difficult to remain faithful to rendering an incomplete poem word for word when I believe I’m so close to knowing who she was in private and what she might have wanted to say. 

    Although Amelia asked explicitly for marital privacy in her prenuptial letter to George there are gaps where the stories got out, as well as shared moments that never got told.

    At the top of another fractured draft the soft looping script reads: “The vulture is kind / life is merciless,” a version of the conclusion from her last draft. The page itself has gone nearly diaphanous with time, the ghosts of the words on the back become shadows I see on the front when I hold it up to the light. In this draft she titles the piece and begins: “Bruised flesh fit only for the vulture Death after the heel of love has trampled mud into it . . . Lovers and maidens sit wishing the yellow quotes of it. What arousing shall arise upon those darkened eyes / Death the conqueror of all.” The draft begins to break apart, text appearing written on the side of the page or in columns. Among the fragments are: “You need not drink (of it) you need not drink” and “the buried flesh of the story.”

    Here there’s also a breaking apart where Earhart seeks to understand her own poem. She says: “Love comes on panther feet paws.” Then: “Panther-footed love.” Then: “Panther paws of love.” Each iteration trying to revise towards the cleanest expression of thought. George said she often enjoyed “having little words get up and dance for me,” but these lines seem a pursuit, a vision or a feeling that’s about to slip beyond the horizon no matter how quickly her pencil flies across the page, crossing out, correcting, trying to force the right words to stay. On the bottom right the draft seems to be whittled down to: 

    Life without [illegible]
    Merciless life passes
    Leaving for the great vulture
    The arid flesh
    Bruised by the
    panther paws of love 

    Gone are the stars, the tall-blossomed apple trees, and maidens. All that remains is for the merciful vulture to remove the wounds of love. 

    The privacies of marriage often get shared, no matter how secret the two people in it hope to be. Although Amelia asked explicitly for marital privacy in her prenuptial letter to George there are gaps where the stories got out, as well as shared moments that never got told. In his memoir, George never mentions that Amelia was engaged when they met or that he was married, though both items were public knowledge. And based on how he discussed her handling of the drunk pilot during her famed transatlantic Friendship flight, it seems that she either never disclosed to him that her father was an alcoholic, or he cared for this privacy as well and skillfully crafted a counternarrative.

    Before she even left for the Friendship flight she wrote, as was customary, “popping off” letters in case she died on the flight and requested her mother burn her writings without looking at them. Every time I view her incomplete drafts, then, I infringe on her desired privacy, and each time I handle slips of paper and try to order the pieces to make a recognizable verse, I violate the wishes of a person I so badly want to know. 

    All love is incomplete. Everyone has a secret from a beloved. Everyone keeps an unsayable thing from themselves. And everyone wants to be a voyeur to love, to be attached to the story, to know what others don’t—sisters, friends, photographers, rumored lovers, myself playing the archivist. Perhaps fragments are a way to know Amelia Earhart, as it is a good way to know any one-directional love, to study her mind in different attitudes of reflection—her love of beauty, her familiarity with death, and the privacy with which she guarded these thoughts.

    That the final drafts of most of Earhart’s poems vanished seems fitting. Even in a life so thoroughly documented, no one knows where her poems are, or what they might have said if she’d had more time. In Soaring Wings George said: “Always AE cherished a wistful ambition to have one full year of leisure to devote to writing, a year uninterrupted by flights, lecturing, or journalistic dead lines. She never had been satisfied, I think, with anything she wrote.” 

    Perhaps my fascination with the archive is the fascination any lover feels, desiring privileged knowledge of the beloved. There is no longing my way into an answer, no transforming the lyric fragment into a narrative, only a sense of the engine of a mind wounded by love’s panther paws; the brittle clicks of palm branches; the beloved, dark with sleep, who never knew devotion’s careful study. This seems to be the way of all of love’s most disciplined pleasures—to adore someone you don’t fully understand but accept that intimate distance, respecting the secrets that are not yours to know.


    Traci Brimhall’s essay, “Archival Voyeur: Searching for Secrets in Amelia Earhart’s Lost Poems” was originally published in New England Review 40.4.

    Traci Brimhall
    Traci Brimhall
    Traci Brimhall is the author of Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod and three previous collections of poetry: Saudade (Copper Canyon Press); Our Lady of the Ruins, selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize; and Rookery, selected by Michelle Boisseau for the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Her work has been featured in The Best American Poetry, and she has received numerous fellowships, including a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the 2012 Summer Poet in Residence at the University of Mississippi, and scholarships and fellowships to the Breadloaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences.

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