Départ dans l’affection et le bruit neufs.
- Rimbaud, “Départ,” from Illuminations
I’m the wondering son with the nervous feet,
That never were meant for a steady beat;
I’ve had many a job for a little while,
I’ve been on the bum and I’ve lived in style;
And there was the road, stretchin’ mile after mile,
And nothing to do but go.
- Unknown, “Nothing to Do But Go,” from The Hobo in Song and Poetry (1923).
The travel narrative is a familiar one, a sort of pillar of the story-telling tradition that stretches up and across thousands of years and most every human culture. But in our contemporary Western matrix wherein most travel narratives have fallen into the curio-bins of the recent past due to air travel’s ubiquity as well as complex highway systems, how can transience and travel continue to inform a poetics? In a series of posts regarding travel by freight train and hitchhiking, I intend to investigate the ways a poetics can be formed and transformed by these now-marginalized modes of transport. It is worth mentioning before beginning, however, that hopping trains and hitching carry significant risk to life and limb, and should only be undertaken by experienced individuals or with an experienced individual as a sort of ‘mentor.’ More about the roughness of such transport later. For now, live free and ride hard!
How to say that I don’t think most poets, myself included, go after “new noise” in our lives or in our work, or at least don’t do so enough. Or how to say that I wish more poets would allow all illusions of comfortability to evaporate. How to say that I live near a train yard, and that whenever I hear two blows of a front unit’s horn, I wish I was getting ready to run out of shadows and jump up into a grainer hole or a 48-well or a pig with wings. And how to say that the only reason for permanence is the ability to become more transient.
That transience can aid in forming a poetics is not a new idea, as any diary-scribbling teenager who’s read On the Road could show us. It seems, though, that prevailing attitudes towards transience and the traveler and the unitinerated journey are dismissive, even scornful, with dismayed heads shaking and muttering about naivete and romantic folly. The problem is that the regimentation of settlement is so ingrained in the collective psyche that travels must always be purposive above all, and despite the myriad aphoristic inspirational slogans regarding destination’s secondary nature, the sentiment has been cheapened enough that it amounts to so many broken ceramic mugs and crumpled posters. What is missing— from our thinking and from our being— is that transitory states of being lead us out of ourselves, and that this is often where poetry comes from. In that quintessential book of US nomadism, Kerouac writes,
I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds.
The passage remains striking, even to a hardened cynic, because it details a temporary unravelling of self that is arrived at when the journey is subsumed into the self. For all of its romanticism, it gestures towards a reality that comes from weariness and unfamiliarity, but also from searching for the ineffable.
It is well worth noting, though, that the absorption of transience into the self occurs even when travels are driven by purpose, as is evidenced by those featured in Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell’s astounding documentary, Riding the Rails:
What is ineffable thus thickens, as the comforts arrived at from illusory work, the comraderie and partnership that supposedly form the backbone of these United States, even the sometimes-gorgeous land we live with and struggle on— all of these things become impossible to descry, to gauge, to qualify or quantify. Their meaning and significance is ingested by the journey. So while many still ride the rails looking for seasonal work or with work already lined up in some far-flung cowtown, their identities are marked less by their temporary residence in farm communities, and rather by their status as travelers (though a multitude of other names, some pejorative and some not, are often applied). Thus, while ephemeral gainful employment remains a purposive factor for many in transitory states of being, the transitory state itself has become a primary identifying marker.
But how is a poetics formed by the transient state’s way of leading us out of ourselves? I believe that Philip Lamantia‘s “Redwood Highway” is illustrative, especially this stanza towards the poem’s beginning:
Through crystals of lava circuiting thought
Whose harpoon burst battle
Are the wandering ciphers
Revealed solely in their own mystery
As if the air could blind us and yet the word assault
From three pillars a landscape blown away
Here is movement, the hypnotism of thought and word being molded by a “circuiting,” a “wandering” which does not necessarily yield anything intelligible: the “landscape blown away” is a mere fact of geologic time and space, the magnitude of which could be a definition of the ineffable. The transient’s meanders within the landscape allow for an openness to “ciphers/ Revealed solely in their own mystery,” and thus a receptiveness to whatever harshness and rawness and beauty the mystery affords.
In a sense, the transient’s locomotion enables an enhanced reception to the material of poetry, as the sheer overwhelm of images and interpretations fills a boggling arsenal that can be utilized in any number of ways. These materials seep through the transient’s pores into his or her being, leaving a dirt- and grease-covered creature with a hunger for more sunrises like this one:
Or more views like this one:
Their indescribability yields a desire to find words that might approach them, becoming a fuel for further travels and further poems.
The most telling thing about my own notebooks from my times in a transient state is that they are often somewhat mundane catalogs of such sights. Here are my entries from August 14th and 15th of 2013:
Q-PDRV in a snake-eye grainer (miniature moving Louis Kahn)
Well, once again it worked. Put down the book [I was reading Will Alexander's Compression & Purity throughout the trip] & our train to Roseville came. Ha! After a while stuck in PDX, we started motoring— evergreens, county fairs, the scent of rain in small towns, dirt roads to dilapidated farms, stubby Xmas trees in August, plains of hops and mountains & bluffs beyond. Also some suburban detritus but not too bad— kinda bummed we’ll have to go thru the mts. [which help form the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon] @ nite again, but we should have a nice Dunsmuir view (etc.) tomorrow, hopefully.
Awoke and we were next to Klamath Lake and the sun was rising— blues melting into blue smoky mountains beyond, pink ringing them. Slept relatively well. Amazing views of the valley & Shasta & Black Butte, volcanic boulder fields, etc. Got out at the huge curvy siding in the mts., but the DPU had been taken off in K. Falls. Familiar scenery forward, tho tiny baby squirrels & a climb on the suicide porch in the Mts. were notable…
I would like to think that these entries betray an awe, but they fail, not only because it is difficult to write a proper journal entry on a freight train going rather fast, but also because the sights’ immensity and immediacy cannot be properly approached by words in a commensurate fashion. The particulars are lost: the jutting angular obsidian pell-mell of boulder fields, chill sweet pine mountain wind whipping across the skin as one climbs a ladder moving at 60 miles per hour facing the southern expanse of the Cascades, a gaggle of children floppily meandering down slick sidewalks raising cotton candy puffs as sceptres… Only in an afterward do the words flow in proper effulgence, though there are few words that can actually move towards a union with a mountain like Mount Shasta, or rightly depict the palette of the sunrise over Klamath Lake. What remains is the slinking of the ineffable into one’s skin, into one’s retinal reserves, and how accessing these stores is always an asking for more transience, for more journeys that lead towards the self’s dispersion, for more words.
- TED REES
Ted Rees is a poet and essayist who spends most of his time in West Oakland, California, but travels around the western US on a regular basis. His current work focuses on environmental degradation and the struggles of wage labor. Previous writings can be found in the Double Burst featurette with Jared Stanley (Supersuperette 2014), Michael Cross’ Disinhibitor blog, Small Press Traffic’s website, Eleven Eleven, Ragtag, and a number of other publications both online and off. His two chapbooks include Outlaws Drift in Every Vehicle of Thought (Trafficker Press 2013) and Like Air (BentBoyBooks 2012). Forthcoming are chapbooks from Mondo Bummer and BentBoyBooks.
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