Where No Man Can Touch
(2015 Winner, Donald Justice Poetry Prize)
by Pat Valdata
The Palette & The Page, 2014
Pat Valdata’s new book of poems, Where No Man Can Touch, is a fascinating journey through the history of women in flight. Valdata’s fine writing and careful research earned her the 2015 Donald Justice Prize for this volume, which is her third book of poetry.
When most people think of female pilots, only one name comes to mind—Amelia Earhardt—arguably the most famous American female pilot, who was lost over the Pacific in 1937 when attempting to fly from Lae, New Guineau, to Howland Island. Thanks to Valdata’s own love of flying and her extensive research, however, readers will be introduced to many exciting female pilots from all over the world. How fabulous, especially for young girls who dream of flight, to find this gem of a book that explores the lives of countless courageous women.
Where No Man Can Touch opens with a provocative quote from Clair Boothe Luce, who frames the challenge of being the first woman to attempt any major feat when she says, “Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, ‘She doesn’t have what it takes.’ They will say, ‘Women don’t have what it takes.’” We see the echoes and the truth of this statement even now, when women are represented in every profession, including numerous posts in government and formerly all-male occupations, such as astronaut and combat soldier.
Valdata did extensive research to compile the stories of the many women around the world who took to the skies. Where No Man Can Touch is organized by time periods stretching through the centuries, beginning with the 1700s-1800s and then moving through the 20th century in 10-year increments, ending with the last poem in 1953. Each poem starts with a short epigraph that includes the dates of the woman’s life and the dates of her major flight-related accomplishments. By providing readers with a clear frame of reference, Valdata showcases the range of international women who were enchanted by the dream of flight. Her book begins with the poem called “Joie,” the story of Jeanne Labrosse (1775-1847) who claims the honor of being the first woman to fly solo in a hot air balloon in 1798. In this cleverly crafted villanelle, Valdata imagines Labrosse looking back on her flight over Lyons, France, and relishing the memory of the day.
I had to shield my eyes against the sun
That shone above the steeples in the square,
My soul transported by joie de ballon.
Near the end of the poem, Valdata imagines Labrosse’s wish for her sisters (mes soeurs) to join her in the adventure:
This vista should be seen by everyone!
I wished more of mes soeurs would dare
The thrilling flight of joie de ballon!
Moving forward in time, we meet Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick, who claims the honor of being the first woman to parachute from a plane. The year was 1913, very early in the history of modern flight. Valdata captures Broadwick’s feminine side when she opens the poem with the lines “My frilly bloomers billow like the round white canopy cushioning my descent.” Adding to the charm of the poem, Vladata arranges the lines in the shape of a parachute, the last lines cascading down the page like Broadwick’s body suspended from the parachute: “Did I happen
There are familiar characters as well, such as Amelia Earhardt’s flight instructor, Neta Snook, who displays a cautious optimism for Amelia in the poem “Always an Instructor: “I knew she had plenty of gumption and skill, but I worry about this round-the-world flight.” Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the first woman in the United States to earn a glider license (1930), reminds the readers of the solitude and reflective time she craved during her glider flights. Valdata skillfully weaves lines from Lindbergh’s poem “Even” into the a poem aptly titled “Albatross” and the readers understand where the title of the book comes from when they read these lines, a refrain in every stanza: “Where no man can touch, No shout can reach.”
The last section of the book focuses on the women who were so vital in flying military planes within the United States as part of the stateside WWII effort. These women, all of them capable and competent pilots in their own right, freed up the men who were asked to serve as pilots in the military. One particularly poignant sonnet, “Dying to Fly Blues,” tells the story of Helen Richey, who was the first woman to fly as a pilot for a regularly scheduled airline in 1930. In the poem, Valdata imagines Richey’s thoughts as she looks back over her flying career and all of her many accomplishments, which include racing, flying over 10 thousand hours, and ferrying bombers for the British Army. Valdata’s final couplet surprises with its lines
“The bottle of pills is now my only friend.
If I can’t fly, I want my life to end.”
Valdata’s fine collection of poems weaves stories of joy, whimsy, courage, and tragedy into an unforgettable montage of amazing women who dared to fly when so many sttod against them. There is a clear note of triumph at the end of the book and every reader is sure to feel inspired by the story of the first woman to break the sound barrier, Jackie Cochran. Here is the poem:
“Postscript: Jackie Cochran Breaks the Sound Barrier”
When a woman wants to borrow a jet,
It helps to be friends with generals who can get
The goods. But even top brass can’t always cut red
tape. Canada came through when they let
me test the new engine in their Sabrejet.
I’d trained with Yaeger so I was all set.
After practice runs, I got the go-ahead.
I dive, and Mach-1 shock waves spread.
I can’t hear my own sonic boom, and with regret,
The judges radio they didn’t hear it, either. I don’t get
Upset. I just do it again. faster and higher, dead-set
To be the fastest woman to ever solo a jet.
Ann Bracken can be found at www.annbrackenauthor.com