Let Us Now Praise Famous Women: Remembering Ann Darr
Grace Cavalieri

Fly pilot—fly.
— Reuben Jackson

Anyone who knew Ann Darr knew she was made of many magnificent things, but there were two cloud-colored emotions that were dominant forces in her life and her poetry: Dreams and Rage.

Our press, the Bunny and Crocodile Press, published two of Ann’s books, Flying the Zuni Mountains (1994) and Confessions of a Skewed Romantic (1993).

Here are two poems from Romantic. First the title poem:

After seeing "The Butcher's Wife"

Are we this much in need of Fairy Tale?
We are. Magic was our middle name until
our hero calmly held the mike and told us
he was HIV positive and dread spread across
the news-type faces furrowing brows, turning down
mouths. Wasn’t recession enough? Wasn’t
revision enough? So small a space we kept for
heroes and one by one they drop into the well’s depth,
disappear carrying our small hope handle.

Iowa didn’t grow only corn. We coveted
the figures on the screen, oh Marian Davies,
swinging from the chandeliers, and Gloria Swanson
glorifying her own swan song and Clara Bow
the IT girl who knew what Marilyn
was all about before there was a doctrine
named Monroe. Oh cherished nights in
the glimmering motion room. Huddling, scrunching,
raising our breathing rate, hot cheek against
hot cheek and tender fingers, probing, pressing,
all set to music and flashing bodies on the screen.

Joe Warren ran the movie house and I ran
after his darling son and tackled him in the grass
on May Basket Day and planted enormous kisses
on his little darling face. I learned it all
in his father’s movie house. Kiss him and he’s yours.
The movies taught me everything I know.

(And this)


What I can’t forgive you for is
that you have cooked my concentration.
You keep raising your head out of
a hole in the ground right up
through my line of thought. You
blink you big eyes as your head
swivels this way and that and I can see
your busy little mind cooking up
a new excuse for your moves, a philo-
sophical minuette, joining this season
to that reason, and over hand down
the whole field of whatever enterprise
you have dreamed up this time to
benefit—well, who else—you. My
blood pressure soars while I hang
onto my tongue. Whatever I say will
be glossed in all of your of your explanations
of your schemes, why someone else is
really to blame, namely me. I’ve shouldered
more blame than I need in my time, but I
don’t have much writing time left and when
you keep sticking your ugly head up
through my typewriter keys, I keep reaching
for the Seven Ways to Murder, since you
have just killed all trust I ever had in you, it’s
only fair. My house is a booby-trapped with
all of your mail, clothes, books, gadgets,
and here again I am leaning on the truth
too much instead of metaphor that can
distance my emotional block from my writer’s
block, and my revenge may come when your
agent sells my novel for a fortune.

Ann Darr could reach further than the stars with ambition and she was mad as hell half the time. Ann’s footprints simply will not retreat . My husband (her pilot buddy) was remarking today how acute is the vision of birds—how they fly at 50 miles an hour and never hit a branch. Well, so did Ann’s poetry. She left us a legacy of Crazy Hannahs and feisty women pilots, bad men and good lovers, sweet daughters and lovely students, and a loyalty to friends that makes me cry to remember. Oh we miss her: flashing blue eyes, gasps of indignation, brilliant teaching, big hats.

I’d like to say a word about ambitious women. First, in my research of the female Poet Laureates I found ambition not present; although, among the male Laureates, it showed up as quite strong. Ambition is NOT a dirty word! It does not mean stepping on other people to get a rooftop view of the world. For women, it has been hard earned. And the cliché of getting up earlier and staying up later applies quite well. Ann was one of the first women to fly a military aircraft. Ann was one of the first women to stake her claim on the world and her right to make an indentation without shame. She was an American hero.

This may sound strange, but I am not so afraid of death now, with Annie over there. It will be more like life itself—her exasperation, her trembling love, indignation, passion, inspiration, yearning. It will make the hereafter worth the trouble. She will, of course, have a beau at her side because Ann was a 20th century beauty in the style of our silver screen heroines. And men could not stay away. I never knew her when there was no one in love with her. She told poet Lisa Ritchie “one should always look her best, as if she were about to go on stage.” The last time I saw her, maybe 6 years ago she was in satin and brocade at poet Robert Sargent’s birthday party...he is now gone as well…she said “Grace, I had to give up teaching as I cannot remember my students’ names.” She had a handsome retired Air Force Colonel at her side that day, proud to be her companion.

My remembrances of Ann Darr hark to the 70’s when I was just beginning to give public readings. She was already a nationally known figure, and I look back, humbled by her unflinching support and loyalty. I cannot remember any reading I gave where Ann was not in the front row. She understood my craziness and took it for art…something she could relate to… for she was a risk taker on the page and in life, and held nothing back. She did not mind when I went over the edge. She’d been there and back.

I have recordings of her from “The Poet and the Poem,” several from the last 30 years, now archived at The George Washington University library and Pacifica Radio, …and to listen is to know that there is no one else in the world that can read her poetry -- a tremulous voice, a beautiful broadcast vibrato; the soul and intensity in each word knocked my breath away, and always will. Those coordinates, by the way—with thanks to GWU Special Collections—are catalogued for retrieval: 4:153-4, 8:53, 10:98, 13; 183, 14; 220 (Grace Cavalieri Papers).

My publishing house, The Bunny and the Crocodile Press, published two of Ann’s books, and her famous pilot-photo graces the cover of Zuni. That book was designed by my daughter, Cindy Cavalieri, and Ann’s daughter designed the cover art for Skewed. Working with Ann was like being a teenager again at a sleepover trying out different color nail polishes. We met when we could. I was at St. Mary’s College every May for 28 years and Ann was a frequent guest poet. One May we put together the proof of Zuni Mountains in between teaching workshops and poetry readings. How I miss the chemistry we had together; she must have been in her sixties then. We were girlfriends, compatriots, and bonded in trust, putting together her books with only scraps of time between us. ..sitting in a dorm at St. Mary’s College with papers and pages covering the floor, then back to DC …and then a session in my condo before we went to see plays at Arena Stage… then doing the finals in my daughter’s kitchen…putting together her books, making something permanent…publishing on the run…poetry on the fly.

We had everything in common: writing, daughters, and flying machines. Because my husband, Ken Flynn, was a Navy Pilot, our relationship was multidimensional. Only Ken knew exactly what her flying experiences entailed, the subtext of thrill and terror. Ann used to say (and wrote a poem saying), “Everything I ever flew is obsolete” and now Ken has that in common with her as well. Ann and I talked poetry, literary gossip; Ken and Ann talked technical maneuvers and detail missions. She cooked for us, we cooked for her. I never felt anything but comfort in her presence. I knew I was totally accepted. Who would want that to go away?

I asked Merrill Leffler for the books Dryad published of Ann Darr. He commented , "Her first two books were from William & Morrow and Co.: St. Ann's Gut (1971) and The Myth of a Woman's Fist (1973). Dryad Press published Cleared for Landing (1978). Ann had poems in Dryad magazine, the first in 1969, I think: 'Christmas Gift: Acceptable Annihilation.' I did publish the long poem, 'Cleared for Approach, Cleared for Landing,' in 1977.” Merrill added a personal remembrance about Ann and her husband, "Ann and George were on a barge trip through the locks in England in 1971 and visited us (ed. note: Merrill Leffler and wife Ann Slayton)—she arranged for both of us to do a reading in London. Amazing. Pisher that I was. And then I was aboard with them for a bit of a stretch on the barge.”

The fuel for Ann’s life was a mix of love and justice. I see her bristling at any hurt to others. Once when I was interviewing a poet on the radio, Ann called the station to complain that she did not like the way I was being treated on-air by the poet! I see her poems clinging to the brilliant absurdities and riding them out. She has a book called Riding with the Fireworks. That is her epitaph, blazing and moving. When Reuben Jackson heard of her death, he said “Fly pilot—Fly.” How perfect that we all remember her in motion, as a triumph of energy, as an exertion of power.

Ann’s obituary mentions Alzheimer’s, but I know the truth: Her spirit just wanted to soar and get there first. The beautiful body would follow later after she shook things up a bit. She always had a flight check-off list. Ann is survived by love, but Here is her official obituary:

Ann Darr: WWII Pilot & Poet (1920-2007)

Ann Darr, WWII pilot, poet, creative writing professor, radio broadcaster, and mother of three passed away on December 2, 2007 in Chicago. Ann was born in Bagley, Iowa in 1920, graduated from the University of Iowa in 1941, worked for NBC radio in New York, and was one of the first women military pilots to serve in WWII as a Women’s Air Service Pilot (WASP).

While with NBC radio in 1942 Ann was a writer and broadcaster for The Woman of Tomorrow. As a WWII pilot Ann was stationed in Sweetwater, Texas. Over 25,000 women signed up to join the WASPs and only 1074 earned wings. The WASPs flew over 60 million miles in every aircraft the Air Force had: small trainers, B-26s, B-17s, UC-78s, P-51 fighters, and the B-29 Super Fortress. By the time the WASPs were disbanded on December 20, 1944, 38 of the pilots died in airplane crashes. The first B-29 flight by the WASP’s was to show men who balked at flying it that this was a plane “even women could fly.”

Ann was a prolific writer and author of eight books of poetry: Flying the Zuni Mountains, St. Ann’s Gut, The Myth of a Woman’s Fist, Riding With the Fireworks, Cleared for Landing, Do You Take This Woman, The Twelve Pound Cigarette, and Confessions of a Skewed Romantic. Ann’s poetry readings criss crossed the world from the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC to Prague, Czechoslovakia. She taught creative writing up until the age of 80 at American University in Washington, DC, the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, and other universities throughout the country. She raised her family with her husband, George in Chevy Chase, MD.

In commemoration of the WWII Memorial Ann wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine, May 7, 1995, "The Women Who Flew—but Kept Silent" and for US News and World Reports: The Long Flight Home: Women Served and Died in WWII." Now they are remembered.

While in her 70’s Ann toured Western Europe with other artists, writers, and musicians as a member of Point-Counter Point. This artistic troupe would float from city to city on a large river barge, dock, and then put on a day of cultural exchange with the local citizens. Ann once wrote to a friend what she wanted to appear on her tombstone: Late in life she ran away from home and joined the circus.

from "Orders":
“After I ran away from home and came back again,/ my Papa said go if you must but mind three things:/ stay away from water, stay off of boats, and don’t/ go up in an aeroplane. So first I learned to swim,/ then I learned to sail, and then I learned to fly.” (from The Myth of A Woman's Fist)

Ann is survived by her three daughters: Dr. Elizabeth Darr, Worcester, MA, Deborah Darr (Kevin Shanley), Chicago, IL, and Shannon Darr-Longstaff, Eliot, ME.; grandchildren: Judson Lester, Vera Lester, Travis Longstaff, Taygra Longstaff, and many other great friends and relatives.


St. Ann's Gut, 1971, William Morrow & Co.
The Myth of a Woman's Fist 1973, William Morrow & Co.
Cleared for Landing, 1978, Dryad Press
Riding with the Fireworks, 1981, Alice James Books
Do You Take This Woman, 1986, Washington Writers Publishing House
The Twelve Pound Cigarette, 1990, SCOP Publications
Confessions of a Skewed Romantic, 1993, The Bunny and the Crocodile Press
Flying the Zuni Mountains, 1994, The Bunny and the Crocodile Press
Hungry As We Are: An Anthology of Washington Area Poets (editor), 1995, Washington Writers
....... Publishing House
Gussie, Mad Hannah, and Me, 1999, Argone Hotel Press
Love in the Past Tense, 2000, Argonne Hotel Press


Dryad Press tribute: http://www.dryadpress.com/AnnDarr.htm
Public Radio International interview with Darr: http://town.hall.org/radio/Dialogue/092794_dial_01_ITH.html
"The Long Flight Home," essay from the "Wings Across America" series, US News & World Report, Nov. 17, 1997: http://www.wingsacrossamerica.us/wasp/resources/darr.htm


Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. Her fourteenth collection of poems, released in March 2008, is Anna Nicole: Poems. Grace writes: "Ann would really like this book."


Published in Volume 9, Number 3, Summer 2008.


To read more by this author:
Grace Cavalieri
Grace Cavalieri's Intro to Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring 2004)
Cavalieri's Tribute to Roland Flint: The Memorial Issue
Grace Cavalieri: The Whitman Issue
Grace Cavalieri: The Wartime Issue
Grace Cavalieri: The Evolving City

Grace Cavalieri: Split This Rock Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Tenth Anniversary Issue
Grace Cavalieri on Ahmos Zu-Bolton II: Poetic Ancestors Issue