Before I begin on what is called the ‘westbound’ (i.e. final) leg of our journey into the ways a poetics can be formed and transformed by riding freight trains and hitch-hiking, it is worth mentioning again 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.’
A few days ago, as I sat with my friend and road dog Amanda in a particularly sunny area of the jungle where one waits on trains going south from Dunsmuir, I began to think about how train cars resemble poems; that is, certain cars’ characteristics can be utilized to describe poems, read poems, even write poems. As my mind meandered upon entwining the possibilities of freight and poetry, the clattering of a southbound train broke my reverie, and we ran up onto the ballast to see whether any good rides were available. The train consisted principally of loaded lumber racks and oil tankers, both reviled for their ecosystem-destroying cargo and inability to be ridden safely, and after a quick jog alongside, we retreated back to the jungle to wait. As noted before, patience is a necessary virtue when dwelling in the cuts.
Before we could really settle into our jungle flop, though, another southbound came roaring down the tracks, this one consisting primarily of grainers and boxcars. Though none of the latter were open on our side of the tracks, a Canadian grainer is a lovely and safe ride approachable from either side of a given set of tracks, and so Amanda and I ran to a barn red train car with the “CN” logo blaring whitely on its sides, hoisted ourselves up, shoved our belongings and bodies into the grainer’s holes, and soon enough, we were off. As the train moved south along the banks of the Sacramento, we sat out on the porch and watched the scenery go by in the orange-pink shades of the crepuscule.
Of course, much of this is somewhat meaningless jargon to those uninitiated to the world and language of freight trains. And what the hell does a Canadian grainer have to do with poetry?
A complete explanation of the various cars that make up the freight system would take up the rest of this blog post and leave no room for poetry, but if you are so inclined, a relatively exhaustive article can be found here: “Rail cars that hoboes ride.” For our purposes, I’m going to focus on two of my favorite rides, which also happen to be two of the more evocative rail car types: the boxcar and the grainer.
The image of the hobo standing in an open boxcar’s doorway is a poem in and of itself. As a signifier, it is steeped in a potent mixture of signifieds ranging from abstractions of America and freedom to utmost poverty and deprivation. It is the most capacious of rail cars: its openness and echoic boom are among the primary qualities the transient being will notice the first time a pack is thrown onto the slick metal floor and the body hoists itself up into the cavernous space.
What is also unique about the boxcar is that it allows for a reception to the ineffable (like Mt. Shasta in colder, more snow-capped times) that remains mediated by the limits imposed by its doors’ dimensions. The transient being can see more from a boxcar that from other rail cars, but unless it is open on both sides, there is only one constantly shifting view available from a static rectangle. In this way, the boxcar resembles the poem that is full of possibility and reflexively so, but can only approach a multitude of visions— indeed, a stacked array of constantly shifting visions— through a singular focus in tone. The boxcar door provides for a tonal limitation in the limitless world, and thus, Dana Ward’s “My Diamond”:
What’s weird is that the nihilistic posture is the farthest thing from me
day to day my mind changes on heaven
canned tuna, Tapatio, Parmesan cheese
when I stopped watching Jersey Shore I thought it was a moral failing
everyone knows about high/low collapse
some poets won’t really go too low in the end
they won’t, on Two and a Half Men, spend prestige they could bend
all the way out to the Verizon. I wish poets were as good
at poetry as they are at resentment no I don’t
buy me back from this ebb with a large margarita at the end of the boardwalk by the wheel
It isn’t the obvious “high/low collapse” that makes the poem a perfect example of a boxcar, but the collapse is part of it. Rather, Ward’s poem is boxcar-like because its tone is conversational, even colloquial, while relating the intricacies of that “high/low collapse.” In the stanza above, the reader is regaled with a smattering of pop culture references, but in the next stanza, Ward’s diamond “bruises the heart to exaggerate its caustic obsolescence.” The tone remains, but there has been a shift in focus from the semiotics of low pop to a distinct emotionality, the complexity of which remains with Ward, to some degree. The boxcar door is open, but its wide screen is only so wide, and this limit is not a diminishing, but instead allows for a contained intricacy.
Our next rail car is formally known as the Covered Hopper car, but is usually referred to as a grainer, given that most are carrying grain, feed, coke ash, and any number of other small particulates. Grainers are a study in contradictions: from an open, airy porch at either side, the transient being must place possessions and then themselves through a small hole which leads to a space that is large enough to sit up and lay down in, but in which it is nigh-impossible to stand. Though exquisitely safe and undetectable in these tiny spaces, the transient being is caught between a metallic cocoon and a promise of wind whipping across the face, the deeply fraying density of compression and the jolt of open light hitting the iris.
After a lengthy excursion last year that ended in a 29-hour stint in a grainer hole, I found myself reading Aimé Césaire’s Solar Throat Slashed (trans. A. James Arnold & Clayton Eshleman). Enthralled by the lushness of language compacted, I like to think of his work as a grainer— a place where possible trance is available in a crowd of images, but where such exuberance must be shuttled into a shudderingly small space as a matter of necessity. The intensity of such an operation can be found in the poem “Turn of Events”:
Truly the stockjobbing of the birds of paradise no longer makes the rose of
the winds fade and when I open the cage of my eyelids when I unglove my
nested sparrowhawks and release them in a relaxing of eyeballs where the
pollen of hunger noiselessly carries out the lofty miracle of fecundating the
sterile flower of despair
(froth of the word tossed thoughtlessly amidst the flames of a silence
just concretion perceived by my excessively vivacious left breast
excrescence of the most uncivilized habits of my big toes
to my will dragging the scraps of the world
to my will silting up with more and more feeble gasps that I array quite nicely
as wisely defunct worlds)
Inside the grainer, only “scraps of the world” are seen, the fullness of “the birds of paradise” and prevailing winds unable to be fully grasped. Césaire later writes of “the nothingness of eyes,” and this is perhaps the most potent way of thinking of a poem-cum-grainer: the blankness of the inner world entombed in industrial efficiency, the impossibility of efflorescence despite its possibility and proximity just outside the grainer hole. Thus a grainer poem is images and thoughts compressed and “fecundating the sterile flower of despair,” a sort of impossibility that the poet wrangles with at every turn.
This wrestling with what Césaire calls “the nothingness of the city” that is not a nothingness at all, or the revolt “against the order of the road system” that can only be enacted on a different yet similar system: these are integral aspects of the life of the transient being, but also of the poet writing in and through a climate of teletechnological prowess in the ever-widening web of capital. Though hopping freight trains is not for everyone, the activity’s ability to inform a poetics is palpable to me, and I hope this sequence of blog posts has made it so for you, too, dear readers of Drunken Boat. Perhaps it is best to end on the thought that freight-hopping can be thought of as “an outward manifestation of an inner escape,” a phrase utilized often by legendary hobo graffiti writer buZ blurr. That poetry can be thought of in the same way, in its search for the ineffable and its dwelling in the interstices, is not a coincidence.
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), Armed Cell, Elderly, 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 in December is chapbook of travel and train poems from Mondo Bummer.
Happy Throwback Thursday! In celebration, photographer Benny Doutsh offers some truly inspiring photography gathered in the midst of his world travels for this week’s Vintage DB. These photos originally appeared in DB 11, Winter 2010.
Benny Doutsh was born in Israel and currently lives in Tel Aviv. Recently he spent time in the Himalayas, documenting the journey of Indian motorcyclists as they crossed some of the world’s highest mountains. He currently works as a photographer for YNet News, the English language website for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most-read newspaper, and FullGaz, a motor sports news website. Check out what’s up next for Benny on facebook.
Besides reading the predictably, addictively, and incessantly superfluous—email, social media, the BBC news website—I somehow find myself today, as if trying anxiously to make up for lost time, flipping among five books.
When in New York last spring I caught Caryl Churchill’s new play, Love and Information, and now I’m enjoying how stage manifests on page stunningly: 57 playlets (each only seconds long) that can be, within certain parameters, randomized for each performance, sans tags for or descriptions about who is speaking and where—the whole investigating how networked culture has turned each of us into data torrents.
For mindbreaks, it’s Sam Lipsyte’s collection The Fun Parts. Turns out Lipsyte was raised in Closter, New Jersey, which lies 7.8 miles from where I was raised, and so one of the joys of his prose for me is swimming among the voices and venues in which I grew up. Everybody talks about how funny Lipsyte’s fictions about urban/suburban lost boys and girls are, but in the end those fictions are about just the opposite: the abrupt erosion of searing humor into breakage and loss.
David Shields recently sent me a mockup of his next nonfiction, War is Beautiful, due out late in 2015. It announces itself as a large, thin coffee-table book with luscious layout, but immediately dissolves into a cloud of irony created by the discrepancy between found quotes about war and journalism and the gorgeously rendered nightmare images from the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Like Love and Information, it’s all collage, 24/7.
The last two things I’m reading feed my novel-in-progress, a retelling of the Minotaur myth, whose guiding metaphor is the labyrinth. And so: the chapter in musicologist Veit Erlmann’s Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality about muscial labyrinths and German physicist and physician Hermann von Helmholtz’s monograph on resonance theory, which subverts Descartes’ mind/body duality by asking us to think about how we hear music, thereby complicating inside/outside and suggesting the former is always-already the latter, the latter always-already the former.
Part of my Minotaur novel-in-progress takes the form of erasures of earlier texts (by Ovid, Borges, et al.) concerning labyrinths. And so: Jen Bervin’s Nets, her amazing (a word, naturally, that holds within itself maze, a form that complicates the unicursal structure of the labyrinth) erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In each case, the gray ghost of the original haunts the bold black residue, reminding us by suggestive indirection that every body, physical or linguistic, is a haunted house.