Last month, local writer Dorothy Yuan very kindly sent us a copy of her debut poetry collection, the wistfully titled While I Watched the Airplanes. In a book trailer for the collection, Dorothy explains that she was inspired by the time she spent in airplane viewing galleries in 2018. There, she ruminated on beginnings and endings in life. It is easy to see why she was inspired — surrounded by lone travelers hungry for conversations, watching people and planes come and go, against the backdrop of the changing sky.
Naturally, airports and airplanes make up a central motif here, as the collection is split into four sections, namely: Departures, Turbulence, Check-In and Airplane Spotting. Each sections have their own theme, like the aptly titled ‘Departures’ that dwells on goodbyes and anguish. Below, we pick our favourite poems from each section and dive in.
1. Brain Cancer
‘Brain Cancer’ opens the collection, and in impactful fashion, too. Yuan writes about a protagonist whose personal identity and medical diagnosis seems to have blurred into one, a poignant look at a harrowing hospital experience. With a mix of alliteration and short, punctuated lines, she juxtaposes the sterile and clinical nature of the place with the protagonist’s uneasy inner monologue, as the poem closes with them wondering if “my delirium is acting up again”.
‘Drowsy’ closes out the ‘Turbulence’ section of the book, an epilogue involving “narcolepsy” and “anesthesia”. With the poem’s stanzaic shape, Yuan creates a sense of ebb and flow as the speaker moves in and out of that liminal space one enters in a drowsy stupor — a “slumber of haze” as they call it. Surely we are all familiar with this feeling, and the sudden rush of thoughts that come with it. Here, the speaker ponders on ambition, loneliness and desolation, the themes that are prevalent in this section.
‘Subway’ tells the tale of two lovers headed in opposite directions, deftly using the imagery of train tracks and lovers with different destinations as a backdrop. The idea of journeys, both literal and metaphysical, is present in many poems in the book, and in ‘Subway’, both forms of that journey are seen. There’s the speaker, a seemingly unvarnished character, looking at their love interest, described to be all pristine and put together. And by the end of the poem, the speaker questions this very distinction.
4. The Machine
Located at the tail-end of the book, ‘The Machine’ is full of contrasts: “good and evil”; “life and death”. It seems to question society’s obsession with binaries, and among other things, the idea of an objective “good” and an objective “evil”. Reading this poem felt like an uncanny depiction of current times, an age where lines are increasingly blurred and it seems futile to divide society into such extreme binaries.
While I Watched the Airplanes journeys through a series of lived experiences in four sections, some of which are fleeting and some of which are long-drawn. The lovely illustrations peppered throughout add a visual layer to the work and one wishes the writer could have combined them even more to make for an interesting juxtaposition of mediums. It might be a while before we get to watch airplanes again but through the stories here, maybe we’ll be able to think back to the times we had an unexpectedly poignant conversation with a stranger on a plane; or the time we saw a couple part ways at the departure hall; or the day we spent foolishly drafting up our futures at the viewing gallery. ✈️
Feature photograph by Raphael Cheong