Peter Quartermain

When I speak of poetry, I refer to a maximal investment in language for the sake of language on the part of an individual who should be – but isn’t always – prepared for a minimal return: in goods, in services, in status. When I speak of a poet, I mean one who has married his/her art, as so defined, beyond the grave.
(Nathaniel Tarn. Views From the Weaving Mountain,
pp. 32-33)


Avia: a poem by Nathaniel Tarn, close to 275 pages long, published in 2008 along with two other books to mark Tarn’s 80th. birthday. An interesting title. Its very suggestiveness could come only from a poet. Avia: Birds. Or A Via, perhaps.

Via: derived from Latin, whence Italian, Spanish, Portuguese via: a road, passage, channel; a journey, voyage; a means; “in rustic speech,” according to the 1899 Century, “vea, prop. orig. *Veha = Skt. vaha = Goth. wigs = AS. weg = E. way”; by way of. Via: interjection, an elliptical use of via, way (we’re still in the Century) – “Away! off! formerly a word of encouragement from commanders to their men, riders to their horses, etc. [Yoicks! Tally-ho!], and also an expression of impatience, defiance, etc. [Sez who?]”

And in Latin, consulting Lewis and Short? Via: from Sanskrit, bring, lead; Gr vehicle; hence German wagen; Eng wagon; “a way, in the most general sense (for men, beasts, or carriages, within or without a city), a highway, road, path, street; the name of a particular street or road; in abstract sense, as in English way, for march, journey (synonym iter); a way, passage, channel, pipe, etc.; thus, a lane in a camp, the windpipe, a passage between the seats of a theatre, the veins, a cleft through which any thing penetrates, the path or track of an arrow, a stripe in a party-coloured fabric; as a trope, a method, mode, manner, fashion, etc., of doing any thing, a course; the right way, the true method, mode, or manner.” And as an adverb, rightly, properly (as opposed to wandering out of the way). Viam perficere, to attain an end.

There’s a lot of stuff packed into that word, and all that I’ve listed is pertinent to Tarn’s book: A Via, certainly, but one word, not two. On the cover, Avia bears a subtitle: A poem of international air combat, 1939-1945. Though it doesn’t appear anywhere else in the book, that phrase necessarily invokes (not that we’re likely to miss it) Aviator and its sundry cognates – since 1896, says the Oxford Universal, “the pilot of an aeroplane.” The pilot here is Lindbergh, who flew the Atlantic 20-21 May 1927. Like Aeneas dreaming the future history of Rome, Lindbergh dreams the future of flight, 1939 to 1945, and beyond. A viator is a traveller, a wayfaring person, and in Roman antiquity (this is the Century) a servant who attended upon and executed the commands of certain Roman magistrates, which is to say a summoner, an apparitor. How suggestive, those last two nouns.

And what might Avia be? Among other things, it’s the name of a Czech aircraft company which started up in 1919, produced fighter planes and trucks, was absorbed by Skoda in 1928, was the biggest aircraft manufacturer in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, and in World War II produced planes for the Luftwaffe. And what a surprise, to find in Lewis and Short, Avia: in late Latin a grandmother on the father’s or the mother’s side, and by metonymy “a prejudice, as it were, inherited from a grandmother,” hence “old wives’ fables.” Tarn’s title simply bristles with significations. No ideas but in words. Within words, that is.

Or perhaps in word, singular; Avia, one word, not two. The alpha-privative prefix a- : not, without, less. Without, then, a road – the pathless trackless skies. A lack of means. The wrong way of doing things. A wandering out of the way, an out-of-the-way wandering. Lindbergh, hearing all those voices, going it alone on his long flight, communing with, maybe hallucinating, the absent. Once he reaches Europe he wants to keep going or at the very least turn around, fly back the other way – but Coolidge orders him to crate up the plane and come home by another trackless route, on the U. S. Navy cruiser Memphis. Disobey the President? Stay up! away! off! his dream’s desire Via!, Lindbergh the a-viator refusing in his dream to “attend upon and execute” (there’s the Century again) his chief magistrate’s commands, dreaming in their stead his future, which is our (Tarn’s readers’) more immediate past – what was, for some of them, once their actual present: Tarn’s note in my copy of Avia calls it, a little sportively, “a Boy’s Book, from Boy WW2 to Boy WW2”. In the act of reading, Lindbergh’s dream (nothing folâtre about that), and Tarn’s book, both melt into our actual; dream shades into wakefulness. As doubtless did that dream of Virgil’s Aeneas, two thousand years ago. Shades:

one more time
over the Concorde (where once a padre, assisting
L. XVI, long ago cried “Look: Louis’s saintly spirit
climbing to the skies!”) but We were out of sky, also
St. Louis’ spirit, come right back into France. Now
it’s recorded in the book of records – my Roland epic,
a single deed never to be forgotten among the few:
those single deeds set history on fire, and men in joy
at some unearthly done rather than not done, now
to be done again . . . (p. 24).

Lindbergh, first of the few? The evocations stretch forward into the poem, that We marking almost a concupiscence, man and machine, man and flying machine, leaving the world behind. So, the lines immediately before those I quote:

Taxi out slow, full fuel load,
four-five-o gallons, zero wind, on good hard ground,
and UP, thrown at the sky, my javelin, my purpose,
to rouse the dead and let them fly along. Now seen
entirely spirit, all body left behind, & one more time
over the Concorde . . .

How quickly the “facts” behind the intention move into purpose, desire, feeling, ideas. Vaulting ambition, reversing the old Puritan maxim, Be in the world, not of it. A flyer’s disease?

The sequence I so briefly quote – from swift narrative of fact to inner life to larger outward reach through history (and, later, into geographical space) – models the poem, instructs the reader. Each of the poem’s nine sections, themselves divided into sections, is mainly close-packed narrative and catalogue, a vigorous list, and just gallops along. Here’s a bit from a subsection titled “September 9”:

Mc.K.'s Glaswegian, as thick
as he is short, leaves each to
his own target. Sets to the leading Heinkel
of a Vic of three and fires eight
gun salute. Wings spurting blood. Switch fire
to left hand 111 while leader
flames. Third Heinkel flames as well, turns on
its back and falls. Then left-hand
111 loses a wing and falls: all three gone down
in one attack! Later Mc.K. claims
a 109 to bring the day up to a kill of four. He'd
been the pilot to down the first E/A
on Britain back there in one nine thirty nine:
those days now seem to all
a hundred years ago at the dark gates of Eden. (pp. 111-112)

Most subsections offer anything up to ten or even more such incidents in the space of a few pages, every so often the subsection-sequence interrupted by a “Time Interlude – Personal” devoted to first-person narrative of an encounter with the enemy, whether that enemy be German, English, Japanese, whatever. Tarn says it took him fifteen years to write this poem, most of it, surely, poring over records British, German, American, French, Italian, whatever he could get.

In the Afterword to Avia Tarn describes the poem as a serious attempt “to get back to a poetry of fact and thing. ‘No ideas but in things’ said the American poet William Carlos Williams. But what thing did he come up with: a wheelbarrow!!! In what was, at any moment, to become the age of jets, the age of space!” (p. 296). It is clear, from the long section “3. Britain”, that in Tarn’s usage a “thing” is an event – Tarn’s language is busy with its noun-verb transforms, thing-event transforms; the “thing” turns into, yields, an idea almost at the drop of a hat. Chosen almost at random:

how you assess a wind the way it
plays with spume at the discretion of the waves. (21)

Ideas thicken as the poem moves: “Life has no duty but to kill us off” runs a line on page 36, and the welter of incident and event tells us, what Lindbergh told us at the poem’s start, what we would learn: that within the sustained act of flight we lose our ground, we lose attachment – a disconnect between in the world and above the world, between the machine and the hand, between the idea and the body. Carnality diminished into abstraction. A further transform. And lest we miss that, we are told so, early in the poem:

Perhaps it was a special breed those days
who flew her: boys who were like dead men
in that, in combat, if only then, they had
abandoned all concern with self, every desire
for earthly things of any shape, kind, value
they would desire on earth between their flights:
but, up there, wanted not, and could not even
think of them, remember them at all
so busy were they at their matins. (p. 44)

A via, yes. A-via. A-viators. “Pure plane doing / its work of murder” (p. 164). And such flight has its ecstasies. The doubleness of things.


In June 1916, in the deep mud of the Somme trenches on the Western Front, Isaac Rosenberg wrote to Edward Marsh: “If poetry at this time is of no use, it certainly won’t be at any other.” Tarn’s inventive poem, in its exuberance, its energy, its resourceful transforms, warrants much more attention than I have given it here. I hope it gets it.




Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary. [1879] Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.
Nathaniel Tarn. Avia. Exeter: Shearsman, 2008.
Nathaniel Tarn. Views From The Weaving Mountain. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1991.
William Dwight Whitney, ed. The Century Dictionary. 10 vols. New York: Century, 1899.



Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary. [1879] Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.
Nathaniel Tarn. Avia. Exeter: Shearsman, 2008.
Nathaniel Tarn. Views From The Weaving Mountain. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1991.
William Dwight Whitney, ed. The Century Dictionary. 10 vols. New York: Century, 1899.

copyright © 2008 Peter Quartermain