That Pilot Impostor is a poetry collection might surprise readers of James Hannaham’s previous books, the novels Delicious Foods and God Says No, but the collection has the same bracing humor and strong voice that we’ve come to expect from him. And in the case of Pilot Impostor, we get a multiplicity of voices—some neutral, some wild, all of them unified by the implied consciousness of a wise and trustworthy speaker. What’s more, the format of poems and microfictions allows Hannaham to achieve the seemingly disparate ends of both making bigger jokes and also engaging more directly with philosophical questions, which are hard to address in longer-form narrative without becoming tedious.
The collection opens with an epigram from the philosopher Jan Westerhoff that sets the stage nicely. In it, Westerhoff troubles the metaphor of the pilot in a flight simulator, often used to describe our experience of the world, by pointing out that the pilot, the self, is just as illusory as the world they experience. No one is flying the plane, in other words, and there isn’t really a plane anyway. The metaphor, posited, is taken away. So, too, do the pilots, planes, and writers that fill Hannaham’s collection seem to flicker in and out of existence, to delightful effect.
Hannaham offers his own take on the flimsiness of self, as a construct, in “The Person in Question.” The self he describes is a jumble of “false experiences” and “misremembered occurrences” that “can only keep a handful of its adventures in mind, and then explain itself to itself in wildly fluctuating ways until it becomes completely baffled by the nature of the human being at the center of its own story.” Such wild, fluctuating explanations manifest as the poetic equivalent of unreliable narration, as Hannaham strikes various poses throughout the collection, from naysayer to pilot to second-rate emcee.
If the self of “The Person in Question” is a jumble of flimsy memories, then the self Hannaham evokes in “Frankenstein” is a jumble of poorly understood genes: “a peripatetic piece of protein” on its way from Africa to the desk where it wrote the poem. “Frankenstein” is occasioned by what sounds like a 23andMe experience, in which the protein in question, the speaker, whom we might assume to be African American, like Hannaham himself, hopes for answers but only gets more questions. The speaker learns of “a name that it had never heard before in close relationship with its father,” but what was the nature of the relationship? He learns of the European and Native American genes he contains, which may have surprised him, but how did the mixture happen? And what role was played by what the speaker calls the “mode of travel,” a phrase that conjures both sex, given the context, and an unspoken slave ship?
Both “Frankenstein” and “The Person in Question” are reductive of the self, in different ways, which is typical of the collection. Over the course of Pilot Impostor, we start to wonder if Hannaham means for us to question our very existence, and even to ask, Do I exist? As though anticipating the question, Hannaham titles a poem “I Exist.” In it, he broadens the metaphor of the pilot and their plane with Vonnegut-like simplicity, in a musing on death: “I’m not looking forward to the time when I’m dead. I find this plane of existence pretty stimulating, the landscapes unspeakably beautiful, and the question of how to live so engaging, so puzzling.” The plane is now the “plane of existence,” which the speaker celebrates as full of love, marriage, and friendship, but he contrasts that exalted plane with its end, death. He calls our language about death, like eternal sleep and perpetual silence,
Bad like a business trip
to Ohio where they make you pay upfront for a nondescript hotel where
it’s the anniversary of 9/11 every morning and they serve mini-muffins
and complimentary Starbucks coffee between the times when the planes
hit the Trade Towers.
Just as the celebration of life gets undercut by a complaint about death, the ubiquitous plane is allowed to be the “plane of existence” only fleetingly before Hannaham draws it back into a specific, terrifying embodiment of the famous hijacked jets.
Hannaham reserves his most vivifying language for planes and crashes. In “Air Disaster,” he describes a mysterious plane crash, then the crash of a plane sent to recover the black box of the first plain, and then the crash of a boat that had recovered the black boxes of both planes. “Air Disaster” escalates like a joke, which makes its final turn surprising: “No one could ever properly investigate any of the mishaps; they all remain completely unexplained at the bottom of the ocean. That’s what it’s like to have to deal with you.” That last sentence, hilarious and beguiling, is like a punchline. But whereas many punchlines can be deflating, reducing what comes before to the wind-up of a joke, in this case the humorous turn complicates the poem, adding a third level: first, there’s the crashes themselves, the vehicle of the collection’s extended metaphor; then there’s the original tenor, established earlier in the collection, of plane rides as life, perpetually crashing; and now, in “Air Disaster,” the new tenor of a relationship as a series of mysterious crashes. Hannaham makes the same move in “Turbulence Over the Mountains,” whose second stanza begins, “So too in my soul do aircraft vanish.” And in “The Veil of Estrangement” the speaker watches his beloved’s
drifting toward the event horizon of accusation, always outward,
further outward and forever outward, using the outward as a grav-
ity assist on its pathological path, new frontiers every hour, there
goes Ultima Thule.
Just as Hannaham expands and complicates the metaphor of the plane, he makes clear there are many different pilots, almost all of them impostors: from the conman Frank Abagnale, Jr., to the hijacker David Burke to, yes, God. The latter is implied, in “Ghost Plane,” as “the feeling that some unknown, invisible force has control of the plane,” which the speaker finds “almost as frightening as hurtling toward a crash.” But if God, too, is a pilot, then can other pilots be likened to God? In the case of one particular pilot, the writer James Hannaham, the answer seems to be yes. In “Glances,” the speaker presents a plane crash from the perspective of two women, one of whom died, while the other survived. The women happened to go to school together, though they may not have known each other, and the speaker, who knew both of them, wonders if they ever crossed paths. He muses that their fates, “though diametrically opposed, seem to rhyme somehow.” And when he wonders, “Does the universe make these connections? Does the mind? Is there a difference? Does it matter?” he seems to invite us to imagine him, the mind in question, making the connection: placing the women together, in his God-like way, to meet their fates.
Whereas God is only implied at the margins, another pilot impostor, Fernando Pessoa, stands front and center. According to the publisher, Pilot Impostor was written in response to the work of Pessoa, the Portuguese writer famous for his heteronyms, “to undo it in certain respects, and to rescue from it what still felt relevant.” Although the pages of the collection are sprinkled with references to Pessoa as well as citations of specific pieces by Pessoa and his many heteronyms, familiarity with Pessoa is not necessary to enjoy the collection. Enjoyment can be had, however, from the fact that Hannaham, like Pessoa, is willing to take on contrarian positions. Most come off as deliberately crotchety, to humorous effect. During a period when many poets are embracing and incorporating hip-hop, and even blurring the line between emcee and poet, Hannaham, in “Slavish Rhythm,” satirizes hip-hop as a stream-of-consciousness prose block less reminiscent of Rakim than of a Bob Odenkirk character in Mr. Show (“pack a yak in a sack and don’t slack when you make track”). Hannaham is also a performer, with a background in improvisational comedy, and it isn’t hard to imagine him on stage delivering such lines. Indeed, some pieces in the collection are basically comic monologues, such as “Pilot Impostor 2,” which I imagine crackling through the intercom of a commercial flight:
Let me tell you, ladies and
gentlemen, before this afternoon, I had no experience whatsoever flying a plane,
I had hardly ever even ridden in one, but I have to say, flying is awesome, and I
am great at flying planes. I am the best pilot, I’d give myself an A-plus-plus-plus.
I can fly any plane. I can fly spaceships! You think it looks complicated, with all
the dials and computery thingies with the lights on ’em, but it’s actually a cinch.
If anyone ever tells you this is a difficult job, tell them that they are liars and that
I said so. And I am a genius.
Another example of Pessoa-like contrarianism comes in the poem “They Are All Real Are They,” in which the speaker simply lists topics from “disputes over land” to “the history of ‘the’” to “the environmental gender history of the warfare mentality sexuality.” The humor is in the escalation and the mishmash of buzzwords. Along the same lines, but in a more serious vein, the buzzwords “entitlement” and “privilege” are what prevent the earnest speaker of “Dear White Woman I Nearly Hit with My Car This Morning” from fully grasping the circumstances of his near-accident. What happens is he’s stopped at a crosswalk, where he waits for a group of five white women, “all dressed alike, in tight-fitting black shorts and sports bras, tanned and ready for TV,” to cross the road before he proceeds, but he misses a straggler who crosses just as he starts moving. She makes an angry gesture. He feels sorry but annoyed and finds himself making assumptions about her. But once he moves beyond the framework of entitlement, privilege, and whatever else the woman conjures by her very appearance, he’s able to understand the woman as having her own narrative, and to wonder about “how two or more narratives became snarled.”
Interestingly, this shift requires the poem, like the man behind the wheel, to slow down—a slowness that manifests as a prosaic quality in the language:
Our encounter made me think of many other misunderstandings,
Dear White Woman, both personal and historical, and of how the
assumptions we make based on our
own perceptions and needs can be
just as correct as other people’s, and
yet still cause confusion, injury, and
This prosaic quality, which recurs throughout the collection, may make us wonder why “Dear White Woman” is a poem instead of something longer, like an essay. That it’s one of the strongest pieces in the collection may make us wonder if Hannaham, by writing a poetry collection, is constraining himself for no good reason. But these prosaic moments—some of which are the funniest in the book, not just the most thoughtful—stand out in contrast to the rest of the collection, which moves quickly, its ideas zipping around with almost electric energy. And such moments stand out, too, from extra-textual elements like the Pessoa citations and the many photographs. (Yes, there are photographs.)
On the page that contains the narrower portion of the passage quoted above, a photo shows a Black pilot leaning out the improbably-open front window of a plane, mid-flight, holding towards the camera—and towards the viewer, by extension—an exaggerated selfie stick, or is it a nightstick? The photo is ridiculous, but that’s the point. Startling juxtapositions between image and text, between joke and metaphor, are essential to the project of Pilot Impostor, and such juxtapositions would be constrained by any other genre. If, like me, you loved Delicious Foods and have been waiting for an encore, the mishmash of poems and photographs you find in your hands here might make you nervous, but by its end you’ll be glad that James Hannaham made the choices he did. For, as Hannaham himself writes, in “Rinse Aid”: “Find me a business like a poem—constructed with ecstasy and precision, guided by honesty, truth-seeking, compassionate. I’ll work there.”