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24 January 2017updated 25 Sep 2021 11:13am

The NS Poem: And Then

A poem by Grey Gowrie, the former Conservative cabinet minister, who has died aged 81.

By Grey Gowrie

in awe and reverence the awful thing:
they find the black box (Guántanamo red)
among gentians, blue as Alpes Maritimes’
sea sky blue sou’west of the severed tail
and the fuselage felled from 38000 feet
so they helicopter it from high meadows,
subdued now, lovely with spring flowers,
and set it up in a lab outside Düsseldorf
for replay; and then play it over and over
from tune-up: the first cheerful knocking
by the captain returned from taking a leak
to find the post-Nine Eleven security door
had sealed the cockpit; his slow dawning
what was to happen: the orders, entreaties,
passengers catching on, frenzied pounding
then shouted questions, little hesitant cries
that orchestrate into the awful screaming;
the  screams, screams which they filter out,
lean close to hear the measured breathing
of Andreas Lubitz, in his designer coffin;
steady breathing against filtered screams
and all the instrument warnings going off,
contradicting each other; puzzled queries
from ground control; screams, soft breath
of a lost pilot so they text their colleagues
on the mountain to find him, and they do,
a little way from the others and quite free
of the cockpit, young face all unscathed
beside burst backpacks, scattered clothes
from their bright holidays in Barcelona;
bodies themselves like scattered clothes,
sleeves, scarves, macs, caps and trainers;
not so much blood but fear and gasoline
up on the mountain, in a flowery spring;
so many new, undecided, untested faces
beside empty sleeves of broken bodies
by an uncharred section and then, nearby,
Andreas Lubitz whose lost face they text
to a Rhineland lab for cross-referencing
and it seems staff there begin to wonder
if burned and broken Germanwings 9525
had been inspired by Malaysian Fl. A370
and Captain Zaharie Shah, the innovator,
who dipped wings to see a Penang home
for the last time – did he lock himself in? –
set for Antarctica or the skeltered deeps
of the Southern Indian Ocean, fuel gone;
so one guy, back in the lab, bets another
that Andreas Lubitz compared the poor
five or six minutes of his ingenious hell
to Shah’s five hours, found them wanting,
like his 49 dead to the Malaysian’s 238 –
or did he with glee anticipate Dr Richard
Soderberg of the Svensk transport agency
who said “the privacy of the patient can’t
be traded for aviation safety”, a vile view
endorsed by Lubitz doctors to Lufthansa?
or did Shah, in the name of the Merciful,
on whom all rest, programme oxygen out
for the long glide, the chariot ride of dead? –
so they hit the box again and again wonder
whether that lost pilot, whose wide smile
will flash all over the world in a few days,
saw Earth smile also and rise to meet him
clothed like a Venus in her spring flowers,
and they ask each other if the screams died
before the impact, tremor, echo, the flare,
and with the box intact and all lives ended
and Malaysian Fl. A370 full fathom five,
they stare at transcripts, try to remember
just when the news came through

Grey Gowrie (1939-2021) was a poet, lecturer and Conservative cabinet minister in Margaret Thatcher’s second administration. He published several poems in the New Statesman and his “Third Day: New and Selected Poems” was published by Carcanet in 2008.

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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era