A ghostly father leads his living son through weeds to an owl’s hiding place. The owl spreads its wings, taking father and son in. This is the final image in Miles Waggener’s new poetry collection, Sky Harbor. Sounds like the ending to a good ghost story, doesn’t it? Indeed it is. Ghosts of one sort or another inhabit these spooky but brilliant poems.
Sky Harbor isn’t at all about the poet lost in a world of airport Starbucks and Papa John’s pizza. It’s a reflection on life and death and place from the peculiar ungrounded state of a flyer caught between danger and home.
The place? Unnamed. Could be the murky skies above any western city with their seas of new and abandoned housing developments. Or, as the poet puts it, “rooftops beleaguered with little past… the present little more than a thief’s hour.”
But Waggener is a Phoenix native, and his crystalline imagery evokes that metropolis. He writes of streets laid out on a grid, of manmade waterways, of the remains of a river. He never explicitly says that a hundred years ago the harnessing of water through the Salt River Project made Phoenix possible. But history—the mines, irrigation, and development of the Sonoran desert— haunts these poems.
Waggener begins and ends his book with poems titled “Sky Harbor.” In the first, travelers in a metal shell disembark from a place where “the sun pulls like a razor in the nurse’s hand.” There’s a yellow party balloon caught on a power wire, a smiley face on both sides, the whispered prayer every frightened flyer prays: “not me, not me, not me.”
In the final poem, a boy dozing by a reservoir sees his dead father rise from the murk. The groggy dead leads into a ghost town of model homes festooned by WELCOME HOME flags and haloed in automated lights that promise immortality. Artificial lakes glimmer darkly, their shallows so still even water waits for a word. Waggener describes the stillness as “Umbra of no one listening. Light of no one in the kitchen.”
Yes, there’s a sense of foreboding about the present and future for desert dwellers; yes, there’s a sense of longing for what’s been lost. But the poems in Sky Harbor are in no way heavy-handed or message-y. They are lithe and moving: a clear-eyed homage to the Sonoran Desert by a Phoenix native son.