The Train and the River
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.
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
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—
They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.