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Theory of Flight, Circa 1704

by Kathleen Willard

for Bartolomeu de Gusmão


There is something elegant about the early aviator’s

theories of flight -

airships fueled by alchemy

of ether, an element extracted from the atmosphere,

fixative of stars in heavens.

Without ether, his flying machine remains earthbound

unable to lift off -


And that is what we all want

to take flight like swallows, a dream so common

it bores our therapists,

but we hunger to outsmart gravity,

to feel our bones empty and hollow,

to record for all time our first instant of levitation.


And understand his madness

and hope his hypothesis

ether attracts humans

and inanimate objects to the sun

after amber gathered in glass globes,

awakens magnets to elevate his metal

plated ship will actually pan out.


Look at his drawing from the only surviving manuscript.

His airship improbable with bird shaped sails,

contraptions of pulleys and bellows,

its underbelly of giant feathers and garish flags,

and still parts of his theory are credible

as his first experiments flew unmanned through Lisbon.


Seconds before fleeing the Inquisition,

he burned his entire opus,

for what mortal dares fly and trespass in heaven?

All of us, we are all heretics

imagining ourselves winged and free.


by Kathleen Willard

(Nominated for Pushcart Prize, published in The Progenitor. Written after a visit to Mafra)

Kathleen Willard, MA Middlebury College, MFA Colorado State University, remembers her attendance at The Disquiet International Literary Program as a defining moment in her writing life.  Forty of her poems have appeared in  literary magazines and anthologies including: Bombay Gin, Matter, Proud to Be, and Landscape and Place. Her awards include a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to travel and write in India, attendance at Vermont Studio Center twice, the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference twice, and her poem “Theory of Flight, Circa 1704” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, published in The Progenitor and won the ACC Writer's Studio Prize.

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