The Train and the River

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Tony Whedon

The Train and the River



Five decades ago in his classic study, The Machine in the Garden (1964), Leo Marx depicted the central conceit of the American pastoral as Hawthorne’s image of the steam locomotive breaking the rural silence of his nineteenth century Sleepy Hollow. As it chugged through the landscapes of Thoreau and Emerson as well, the steam engine identified that landscapes by contrast, as Wallace Stevens defined the mountains of Tennessee in his “Anecdote of the Jar.” Indeed, today Marx’s trope should be viewed the other way round: it is what is left of nature that gives shape to man-made constructions and organizes the chaos of our urban worlds.
 Twain and Whitman were the first to exemplify this in narratives of the river and the train. Huckleberry Finn needs no complex plot threads—the Mississippi itself is a story of unending sectarian and ethnic conflict; the river’s hazards, its teeming life and imminence of death, give us tale upon tale united through its roiling profluence. The picaresque nature of Huckleberry Finn, its episodic flow of folk tale and narrative, the book’s hyperbolic tone are all enriched by the cadence of Twain’s fluvial language. Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” is correspondingly enhanced by the train carrying Lincoln’s body back to Springfield, Illinois: as the train moves through the American landscape, the reader is carried along with the coffin through stages of grief and mourning:

     Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
     amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep’d
     from the ground, spotting the gray debris.
 Though there is no mention of a train throughout the poem, one feels that its chugging pulse in Whitman’s rhythmic lines, in his endless repetitions and parallel structures and the railroad cortège in the penultimate section of the poem leads to an affirmation of life through a welcoming of death.


As Marx writes of Virgil’s first Eclogue, “We are made to feel the [pastoral] myth is threatened by an incursion of history.” Readers today can hear the same alarms about the “incursions of history” voiced by pastoralists as diverse as Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, and A.R. Ammons. But there are less well-known poets who celebrate our green city spaces and remind us to be aware of where we are, no matter how reduced our natural circumstances. While their kind of poem is not strictly bucolic, it observes and reflects nature as attentively as would a rural naturalist. They consider, as Marx elsewhere says, how “the very principle of natural fecundity is threatened” by the distraction of everyday city life.
 The idea of a natural urban “fecundity” has been approached with contrasting attitudes in poets from Whitman to William Carlos Williams and thence to the Beats and Black Mountaineers. Although Williams’s well-known “Spring and All” makes no mention of a city, he celebrates—as urban pastoralists do—life’s tenacious assertions.
 All along the road [to the contagious hospital] the reddish

    purplish, forked, upstanding twiggy
    stuff of bushes and small trees
    with dead, brown leaves under them
    leafless vines—

    Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
    dazed spring approaches—

    They enter the new world naked,
    cold, uncertain of all
    save that they enter.
 The “sluggish dazed” promise of life’s renewal in the new season reminds us that Williams spent a good deal of his medical life delivering babies. Save in the “reddish/ purplish” hues of approaching Spring, the rebirth the speaker anticipates is not quite here yet. The poem’s disjunctive layered syntax expresses spring’s “cold, uncertain” prospects. It also highlights Williams’s unwillingness to indulge in the posturing of much pastoral poetry. Rather, in “Spring and All” the tone is cautiously hopeful, tenderly observant as befits a family practitioner. On the other hand, there is a confusion of pronouns, a surfeit of double and triple adjectives, a thatch of irregularly overrunning lines, all delivered with the mordant glance the poet’s known for, that suggest early spring’s first confused outgrowths. At the same time, Williams’s lines can feel tortuously worked, the passage’s first two stanzas fidget with impatience; its famous last three lines grow more somber and measured as the poem shifts prosodically. But even with “Spring and All”’s raw concreteness, Williams cannot help making spring’s promise, its “upstanding twiggy stuff,” a pathetic fallacy. The poem’s magic, how one transforms roadside dirt into poetry, reflects the birth-and-death miracle Williams witnessed daily. While “Spring and All”’s tone is dour, it is also full of an amazement that turns what might have been a late-winter dirge into a pastoral lyric.
 Furthermore, as an American hybrid via Whitman and Williams, the pastoral addresses problems of class privilege and environmental debasement. If the pastoral as practiced by Pope, Gray, and Goldsmith in eighteenth century England was socially exclusivist, its borders trimmed, its shepherds more aristocratic fantasy than yeoman reality, its gawky American cousin entertains the contradictions of city life. This can be seen in James Wright’s prose poem “Goodnight” where Parisian cosmopolitanism refers not to the Tuileries or Luxembourg Gardens, but to a bargeman’s back alley:
    By the Seine in the evening on the right-hand shore north of the Port Alexandre, gangs of workmen have left a tangle of canvas and board. A ditch opens there on the other side of the sycamores. I imagine by daylight the place must look like a wound. But the trees have been shedding their bark at the end of August, and their new skin, a peculiar golden, welcomes the lamplight thrown lightly from the ancient bridge, as well as whatever moonlight can find its way down the river. The trees might cling to the light forever, but they hold on for a moment only, and shed whatever lamplights and moons they have over the torn ground, the lumber, the dirty canvas, and the four eyes of rats hurrying from the shadow beside the river to the strange new light on the other side of the trees. Soundless behind them, Francois Villon waves goodnight to his kinsmen.
 The landscape of the urban pastoral often features excavations and building sites. Though they are usually sunny gathering places, such as in Frank O’Hara-likeLunch Poem-places, in Wright’s little etude the “ditch (that) opens there on the other side of the sycamores” is lamplit, moonlit—a “strange new light on the other side of the trees” oozes through the shadows while two rats scuttle into the darkness at whose edge lurks poet-of-thieves Francois Villon.
 James Wright’s late prose poetry reminds us of the urban pastoral’s “modern” European origins. Although “Goodnight”’s proemishness departs from his early lyric style, Wright’s surprising last sentence’s recalls the Zen closures of so many of his poems. Here, too, we feel Wright’s twilight moodiness, his imbuing of nature with knowing sentience. We also sense that “delicate blend of myth and reality” Leo Marx thought “to be particularly relevant to American experience.” As appropriate to a River Seine piece, “Goodnight” is especially painterly. The “golden” light on the sycamores’ naked trunks gives the nighttime scene a “peculiar” vulnerability, and the way that light runs beneath the bridge along the river and liquifies in the trees is reinforced by Wright’s long penultimate compound sentence.
 Landscapes need an internal vanishing point and an external viewing point to contextualize their perspective. In “Goodnight” both merge in the shadowy figure of Villon who historicizes the notion of place. The vitality of place, however, is not static, but depends upon the contrasts and inherent conflicts of a scene. Here, as the poem builds, objects retain and release light and succumb to the inevitable night embodied in Villon. Where has Villon come from? What mystery does he carry with him? And should we know he was condemned to be hanged for murdering a priest, that he disappeared completely after being pardoned by Louis XVI and was released from prison? We can assume he represents the lost, the unremembered, the unskilled workmen, the ditchdiggers, the hustlers and thieves of history, not an implausible thought, given the empathy Wright expresses for the dispossessed in many other poems.
 A different perspective is offered in “On Top of the Hill: Montclair” where August Kleinzahler emphasizes class distinctions—urban/suburban, rich/poor—and how they affect the way we see the postmodern city:
    The air is sweeter on the top of the hill
    with rhododendrons in bloom
    near Eagle Rock, getting up toward the Watchungs,
    homes as big as small-town city halls,
    mock Tudor or porticoes like Monticello.
    It seems like no one’s in these homes at all

    as a beat-up old sedan blows past
    full of big kids screaming
                —Get off ’a the road, you . . .

    It’s the start of Saturday night.
    I wonder if the kids indoors can hear,
    and if they’d like to be along, sucking beer

    from quart bottles, headed for a party
    with the bass cranked till the car throbs.
    But those kids are a different kind,
    and besides, they’re gone, long passed
    and silence is back now like a heavy arm
    on top of the lid of evening.
 In contrast, say, to Wordsworth’s early urban pastoral “Composed upon Westminster Bridge,” Kleinzahler’s North Jersey meditation reverences the moment—it, too, one of diurnal transition—by focusing on what is not purely natural, but man-made and artificial. Save for some emblematic rhododendrons, “Montclair” excises the poetic regalia of suburban life and through this omission creates a sort of reverse effect whose thematic significance is found imbedded beneath surface design: privileged by both his location and class, the speaker views the evening from a hilltop whose lifeless “mock Tudor” homes contrast with the noisy “big kids” in a sedan who invade the speaker’s “silence” and curse at him, the outsider. The boisterous teens, the baseball game below, lights shining through, yellow, provide a contrast that another poet might have exploited, but Kleinzahler prefers not to trade rhetorically on his landscape’s discrepancies. Rather, he takes in the evening and entertains fantasies about what might be going on beyond his field of vision.
 Kleinzahler’s speaker’s familiarity with his view suggests a special tie, perhaps through childhood, but he refrains from telling us how he got on such intimate terms with this landscape and refuses even a scrap of narrative to locate us in time. Such omission lets “the ragged details surface/ like a photo in its bath of chemicals” and permits his depicted world to speak for itself—a key rhetorical element of urban pastorals.
 Kleinzahler also de-formalizes his stanzas with drop-lines that break loose in mid-sentence to further his poem’s chiaroscuro layered effect. Elegantly cadenced phrases slough into dangling modifiers in the first verse paragraphs while a closing movement rises to a painfully bifurcated cadenza that returns us to the speaker “in the cool of the hour before dark.” Thus wavering from a vernacular to a more elevated voice, the poem’s language imitates the speaker’s view of rich and poor, white and Latino, and contrasts a cropped and manicured landscape to an unruly urban one; the oddly broken stanzas also lend the poem a spaciousness that mirrors the lacunae, the blurred details, of the hazy darkness below.
 And what about those details? Detail and figuration often work against design, and in the urban pastoral the devil is literally in the details. Though the following poem echoes motifs found in Wordsworth’s Westminster Bridge poem, Robert Lowell’s “The Mouth of the Hudson”—predating Kleinzahler’s poem by decades—signals both a break from formalism and the influence of Carlos Williams on Lowell’s poetry:
    A single man stands like a bird-watcher,
    and scuffles the pepper and salt snow
    from a discarded gray
    Westinghouse Electric cable drum.
    He cannot discover America by counting
    the chains of condemned freight-trains
    from thirty states. They jolt and jar
    and junk in the siding below him.
    His eyes drop,
    and he drifts with the wild ice
    ticking seaward down the Hudson,
    like the blank sides of a jig-saw puzzle.

    The ice ticks seaward like a clock.
    A Negro toasts
    wheat-seeds over the coke-fumes
    of a punctured barrel.
    Chemical air sweeps in from New Jersey,
    and smells of coffee.

    Across the river,
    ledges of suburban factories tan
    in the sulphur-yellow sun
    of the unforgivable landscape.
 When Lowell wrote his poem, the Hudson had been “condemned” (although later to be restored somewhat during river clean-ups of the seventies and eighties); but at this point city centers, rail, and canal/river transport were being exchanged for highways and suburban malls. In all the arts an attendant malaise was expressed through a romanticism similar to that expressed in the Augustan pastorals in England following the eighteenth century Enclosures Acts which led to rural depopulation and best seen in Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” (1770). Like the Romantic response to the Enclosures, one notable strain of the modern reaction to post-industrialism is expressed in a sentimentalization of nature; and where the Romantics had a nostalgic simplification of the dispossessed yeoman, there is compassion for the marginal and the homeless of urban life.
 But “The Mouth of the Hudson” has none of that: Lowell’s poem runs against both English Romantic and post-industrial romantic currents. There’s no Ginsbergian sunflower in Lowell’s poem, no rowdy hobo companionship, no synthesizing consciousness or call to awakening to sweeten the mix. Instead, paceWilliams, the de-formalized Lowell sickens at how nothing coheres and little signifies: what we have are flotsam and jetsam that do not add up. Nevertheless, the alarm is sounded, and to quote Leo Marx again, “We are made to feel the [pastoral] myth is threatened by an incursion of history.” But at this turning point—when Lowell’s single man “almost loses his balance”—industrialism’s and nature’s regenerative forces have been depleted; history—as we know it by reflecting on trains and rivers—is jumbled and unreadable: the movement of the jagged ice parallels the “jolt and jar” of the “condemned freight-trains from thirty states” which all meet on the continent’s edge.
 There is no such sweet paradox as in Whitman’s poem to redeem Lowell’s river-and-railroad poem. While he alludes sub-textually to other poets (Whitman, Crane, and Thoreau, perhaps) who used railroad and river metaphors to describe, if not “discover” America, “The Mouth of the Hudson”—with its sustained, unflinching gaze—refuses the impulse to absolve the “unforgivable.”
 When expressed, that “unforgivable” impulse arrives with such beauty that we accept it. Interruption is innate to the urban pastoral whose inspiration often comes out of a movement from how things were to how things are. Philip Levine’s “Winter Words” from his A Walk with Tom Jefferson is made from fragments of memory that are unified through a reverie-induced view of the Hudson:
    Day after day in a high room between
    two rivers, I sit alone and welcome
    morning across the junked roof tops
    of Harlem. Fifteen stories up, neither
    on a cloud of soot nor a roof of stone.
    I am in my element, urging the past
    out of its pockets of silence.
                 The friends
    of my first poems long banished
    into silence and no time, leaving nothing
    to tell me who they are.
                A nail of sunlight
    on the George Washington Bridge. The first cars
    crossing to the island douse their lights
    and keep coming. They’ll be joining us,
    these early risers from New Jersey.
 Dedicated to the eighth century Chinese poet Tu Fu, another poet of rivers and loss, “Winter Words” pays homage to the T’ang poet’s “linked verses” that were ballad like in structure and written to be sung. “Winter Words” is also nostalgically lyrical. Its loosely joined six sections shift from urban and river views to memories of “friends/ of my first poems long banished into silence and no time.” We hear Tu Fu in the poem’s invocational start-up and its long opening prepositional salutation to morning; we also sense Tu’s mournful voice “urging the past/ out of its pockets of silence.” Like his contemporaries Wang Wei and Li Po, Tu Fu conversed with the living and dead through elegies that extolled friendship. His praise of friendship was deepened by his experience of famine and genocidal civil war; and likewise, his view of nature was tempered by human scars on the landscape.
 Levine’s own linked verses emerge through eddies of the past that begin with flashbacks to Catalonia and end with a youthful toast to the “great/ inland sea.” Note the painfully cinematic shifting from present to past in “Winter Words”’ fifth section:
    Snow flakes racing across my window,
    the wind-checked, reversed, wheeling
    back east to west.
           At Puigcerda
    on the way back from the holy valley
    of Andorra, clouds of black starlings
    rising at dusk from bare winter trees
    and the hard ashen fields of December,
    a twisting cloud above the road. They knew
    where they were going.
                Still more snow until
    slowly the dark rooftops below erase
    their sullen faces. One lost seagull
    against a featureless gray sky,
    white wings extended, hung
    motionless above the changing winds.
 Indeed, as this passage shows, the poem loops back and forth in time, as most reveries do. Timelessness—Levine’s “no time”—is reinforced, section to section, by the pile up of sentence fragments; connections between past and present are made through associative correspondences—the “black starlings” of Puigcerda “rising at dusk from bare winter trees” stacked against “One lost seagull/ against the featureless gray sky” above the Hudson—that contrast the roof-scapes and rivers of Harlem to half-remembered nature images. Like Lowell, Levine also works in allusions to poets other than Tu Fu: but while the last three words of “Winter Words” echo the last line of the octave of “Composed upon Westminster Bridge,” Levine’s “smokeless air” is a departure point for its speaker’s long voyage out:
      Detroit, 1951,
    Friday night, after swing shift we drove
    the narrow, unmarked country roads searching
    for Lake Erie’s Canadian shore.
    Later, wrapped in rough blankets, barefoot
    on a private shoal of ground stones
    we watched the stars vanish as the light
    of the world rose slowly from the great
    gray inland sea. Wet, shivering, we raised
    our beer cans to the long seasons
    to come. We would never die.
    Scattered to distant shores, long ago gone back
    to the oily earth of Ohio,
    the carved Kentucky hills, the smokeless air.
 It is interesting how the word “reverie” closely echoes “riverine,” suggesting the river of memory; and it is startling how easily we ride along Kleinzahler’s Pasaic, Wordsworth’s Thames, and Lowell and Levine’s Hudson as they flow through progressively ravaged landscapes. But Levine’s landscape is softer, more forgivable than Lowell’s. In “Winter Words” third section, Levine chooses “Birthday tulips, twelve hothouse flowers/ of royal purple on long stilt-like legs/ that sag on the frosted window . . push(ing) their green shoots” through polished stones to suggest life’s obstinacy and perseverance. Recalling the “purplish, forked, upstanding twiggy/ stuff” from Williams’s “Spring and All,” these lines also clarify Levine’s attitude, if it hasn’t been already: the speaker spends his days struggling to integrate Harlem’s sirens and chicken shacks fifteen stories below into a larger purpose.
 That purpose seems in accord with the scheme of most pastorals: the mending of the breach between man and earth and—for Levine and Tu Fu before him—with heaven. It’s good to think the “friends/ of [Levine’s] first poems long banished/ into silence and no time” reside there.
 In sum, the urban pastoral takes place in liminal spaces, in parks, in railroad yards, on balconies and on the banks of city rivers. It is inward-looking, at times it’s nostalgic, and the occasion for the poem, to borrow again from Leo Marx, is a “pastoral interlude” tucked into the city’s framework. At other times, it has a nihilistic edge. It seems almost an anti-pastoral. Some more classically conceived and irony-steeped suburban verse of the previous three decades come to mind (such as Hayden Carruth’s Asphalt Georgics, Robert Pinsky’s Explanation of America, and also the work of Donald Justice and Stanley Plumly); poems of this kind thrive in lyrical soil and resist narrative impulse. Trains, bridges and rivers figure prominently in the genre which has roots in late nineteenth and early twentieth century city poems like Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Crane’s “The Bridge.” Despite their noisy enthusiasm for the industrial age, both poems depend on Manhattan’s East River for their lifeblood. Without the river and the ferry or the bridge crossing it, there is no reconciliation of the natural and man-made and none of the dynamic instability of the urban pastoral we see today.