When Lori Jakiela references the sage William Stafford saying, "you must revise your life," in her poem, "Looking for Life in the Classifieds," it seems she's found a creative mantra to help make literary sense of her former career as a flight attendant. It's pointed advice that Jakiela, a Trafford native teaching writing at Pitt-Greensburg and Chatham University, heeds throughout the 87 pages of mostly narrative poems that compose her first full-length collection, Spot the Terrorist (Turning Point Press).
In these poems (collected from previous chapbooks, plus 26 new ones), Jakiela strives to understand the twists and turns of a professional life she never bargained for. With a strong voice throughout, she brings the reader behind the scenes of life in the airline biz — difficult passengers, poor pay and shabby employer treatment — that contradicts popular perceptions. However, the speaker's savvy tone never becomes embittered, thankfully taking on a sense of sharp-tongued wonder and empathy for fellow employees and travelers alike. It's a speaker reminiscent of Phillip Levine or Jan Beatty, giving readers a peek into a working life they never contemplate after settling into a flight.
Jakiela covered similar ground in her 2006 memoir Miss New York Has Everything. Here, she's best when gleaning bits of humanity from her putatively glamorous profession. In "The Lady in 38C," her speaker describes being mistaken for a nurse by this delusional woman, "86, still pretty. Her eyes are blue. / Her hair is a cloud. / She looks exactly like what's outside." When turbulence hits, and other passengers tense, "the old lady throws her arms up / like she's on a roller coaster and yells, / They should charge extra for this!" Dementia, or crazy like a fox?
These small but genuine moments add up, illuminating the better sides of an American population too often enraptured by gadgets and social media. It's a theme nicely summed in "For the Cab Driver Who Saved My Job and Quite Possibly My Life," about a Zimbabwean cabbie who hustled her through impossible New York City traffic to make a flight: "Maybe he remembered what it was like / to be helpless and far from home. Maybe it was something simple / and rare — kindness."
Toward the end of the book, some poems felt only tangentially related to the rest. But Spot the Terrorist remains a funnily sweet eye-opener for anyone who flies the friendly skies, or is considering a career there.