A Review of
Elegy for Trains by Benjamin Myers
This London by Patrick Hicks.
Review by Brett Foster.
Elegy for Trains
Paperback: Village Books Press, 2010
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Paperback: Salmon Poetry, 2010
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Sometimes, every once in awhile, you’re happy for a random email you didn’t expect to get and didn’t ask for in the first place. Recently I received an announcement about an upcoming literature conference. One featured reader would be a poet with whom I was unfamiliar, and whose first book is now available. The poet was Benjamin Myers, and his book, much recommended, is Elegy for Trains. Hooray for email, I say. At least every once in awhile.
Myers’s book quickly delivers on the elegiac promise of its title. Its two epigraphs, by Virgil and Woody Guthrie, express a farewell (Guthrie’s “So long…”) and a song not quite remembered. The opening poem, “Invocation,” picks up on this sense of loss and leave-taking, although it does so in way that strikes at the heart of one of poetry’s great powers— the way it can make, at least in the brittle fictions of its art, absent things present. “But a lost thing / is a thing that never leaves you,” says the poem. Another early poem evokes the Oklahoma landscape that looms so large in this volume, the inferred earth along which run those haunting trains of the book’s title. Here we find red clay, barbed wire, a herd and a pond, and oil derricks, “the pumps / nodding like sheep in the oil-field,” and elsewhere, buffalo grass and arrowheads. Many poems here reflect this topography, and Myers seems to be a proudly local poet; his book features blurbs by no less than three Oklahoma poets laureate, and is published by an Oklahoma press. The longer title poem in its opening section borrows by way of allusion the lyric intensity of Milton’s “Lycidas,” but to different effect— it addresses the Blues great Robert Johnson. Its multiple sections present the vanished worlds from the South to Chicago, “the ghosts / of Indian plains / from Shawnee to Oklahoma City,” and addresses too the “strange angel” of the train, “you sweet swinging rail sound.” In other poems, such as “Rail Arrives in Rock Island, IL, February 22, 1854,” Myers uses the rail lines to create a compressed but powerfully mythic story about Irish migration.
The second section foregrounds literary associations, presenting poems on Polonius or referring to Virgil’s Aeneid or Proust, but the speakers in the book’s strongest poems seem far from literature’s consolations. They are isolated in nature, and awaiting inspiration or vision. “I’ve sat here for days, / as still as the windless grass, / waiting to see.” These are not always lonely countryside scenes, but include as well an anonymous walker pondering an office building: “From where I stand, / I am the ghost /looking into a world not mine, / self-contained in its whir of central-air[.]” These moments are bluesy in nature, and a few poems display that spirit more explicitly. In “Out of Work Blues,” morning reaches the speaker like a grey cancer, and that color later reappears in the grey graveyard of want ads.
Trains reemerge in “The Hobbyist,” where the subject at least has the consolation in a “basement world” of model trains. Here we encounter trains minimized, one step removed from the realities of those appearing earlier. Fittingly, then, “The Hobbyist” is one of Elegy for Trains’ most formal poems, rendered as a rondeau, its demanding rhyme scheme and repetitions handled adroitly. It makes sense, then, to find this poem followed by one honoring the esteemed American poet Donald Justice. A later poem, “Adults” expresses itself equally well in the demanding sestina form, and the abab quatrains of “The Pawnshop” exhibit Myers’ strongest sense of line, made so apparent by the stanza chosen and how he uses it.
The third and final section, entitled “A Common Grace,” begins with some emotionally sharp haiku and a love poem (called “A Love Poem”) about a woman humming, and is, fittingly, an aural feast of “m” (and “mmmm”) sounds. Another love poem comically expresses a Calvinist’s tension with a sense of “human possibility” that his beloved inspires in him. Such humor is also apparent, if a little more ruefully slanted, in a poem from teacher’s perspective (Myers teaches at Oklahoma Baptist) in which a truant student resurfaces in class “as the sinking vessel rises / one last time from ocean’s deep midnight.” Another poem more earnestly contemplates how there is a little difference between teaching and roadwork, or “between the book and burden of the sun,” since both kinds of worker represent “builders of a common real[.]” A final poem on the subject ends with the speaker’s plea, “still to plant / one green thing in the minds of my students.” The color emerges again in the book’s final poem, applied here to landscape worthy of the poet’s observation and love:
The world is little
more than a single
[…] but look
how the late afternoon
catches the green.
This emerald, Arcadian landscape is the concluding ideal, but not the world treated diversely in poems whose settings are Arkansas, St Louis, Manhattan, and of course Oklahoma. A better poem to conclude with is “Noodling,” which feels wonderfully experiential, about catching fish by driving one’s hand deep into “the muck and moss, the rusty dross of land”— with the goal of this activity nicely serving as an emblem of Elegy for Trains’, and all poets’, ambitions: “one thin arm fumbling for leviathan.”
Patrick Hicks’ This London is another poetry volume highly committed to place, but the locale and the methods of realizing it in verse form differ from Myers’ book. Hicks, a dual citizen of Ireland and the United States, treats London – its history, its landmarks, its inhabitants and visitors – from the distance of the Midwest. (He has spent much time in London through the years, but is currently a writer in residence at Augustana College). The nearly fifty poems here, cleverly spread across five sections or “zones” (making the book a kind of London Underground), reveal an energy and variety unsurprising from a writer who has published seven books in six years. The epigraphs for each “zone” present the reader with words by some of London’s great authors; we encounter Shakespeare’s “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm,” Samuel Johnson’s comment that a man who is tired of London is tired of life, other quotations by Oscar Wilde and W. B. Yeats, and a final passage by Sam Selvon that declares Picadilly Circus, with its famous statue of Eros, the “beginning and ending of the world,” a more recent equivalent of Rome’s identification as “urbs orbis” or world-city.
Hicks’ individual poems, however, eschew these epigraphs’ grand pronouncements. Having broadcast their allegiance to and admiration of London, these opening lines of each section give way to lyrics bent on capturing particular moments in particular places. To read many poems in one sitting is to experience an astute tourist’s or denizen’s vivid travel or strolling journal. Hicks’ speaker in the opening poem acknowledges the work required to reclaim his European ancestry: “I have returned with the flag of a pen / to claim these streets as my own,” the streets of this city that “was once my capital— / this backwater outpost of Rome.” Despite the personal immediacy in these poems, that historical sweep is a common occurrence; Hicks’ speakers love London’s eventful history as well as its present-day streets and squares. Eyewitness poems that shrewdly describe Picadilly Circus at night (“Red doubledeckers gear around us / as two punks jitterbug in the corner”) or an Underground line exist side by side poems more freely ranging in time and place: some imagine the first performance of Hamlet or portray The Elephant Man, while another wittily connects New London, Minnesota, with its older namesake, whereby Big Ben is matched by a grain elevator and its “parliament of corn.” The final two poems of the opening section portray a more difficult Tube ride, two days after the terrorist attacks of 7/7, and makes a case for acts of kindness toward and the acknowledgment of the humanity of London’s Muslim citizens, newly feared and vilified following the bombings.
The next section continues to explore the many eras and nations that London comprises. The Battersea Power Station exists in its pop-cultural framework (Pink Floyd album cover) but also as a proximate marker for memory, a time when the speaker “moved away, bending with the river, / never feeling so alive, so wired with current.” The dead also increasingly inhabit the book (a late poem speaks of London as “city of ghosts”), from the mentally ill at Bedlam to the innumerable soldiers who made possible Britain’s empire. In a museum reel, they die again and again. Later poems become more lyrically daring: in one, a walk in Highgate Cemetery leads to a letter as if written to friends from beyond the grave. It is funnily precise in its instructions and powerful in its affirmation, as in Shakespeare’s sonnets, that poetry can make a Lazarus out of its author— to read the poetry of the dead is to call forth the dead. The poems clustered in the center of the book pick up the subject of military history by focusing on the illustrious and forgotten (Florence Nightingale, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier). One day in 2007 suddenly becomes 1917, and the speaker imagines young Englishmen departing from Charing Cross for the European front. These studies culminate in a final temporal contrast— a London struck by plague and a modern city for which the speaker-dweller is grateful: “a wet pint in my hand, / I offer a toast to breathable air, / . . . / to lungs buoyant with laughter, to small problems[.]”
A less humane London emerges in the penultimate section. One three-part poem renders different times when London has faced ruin: when the female warrior Boudicca razed Londinium in revenge against the Romans, the time of the Great Fire, and the Blitz. A poem about Jack the Ripper ushers in different portraits of urban violence in the form of a chimney sweep, “forced / to claw the darkness / for that pinhole of light,” and one poem addressed to a London prostitute, Russian, “just out of girlhood,” walking the streets of Soho, swinging the “blunt hammer” of her proposition to passersby. Scenes of human life and death occupy This London’s final section, taking place at St James Park, Victoria Station, Chinatown, Buckingham Palace. Other poems focus on life passing, as a reunion reminds the speaker of his growing older: “When did this happen, /our sleepwalk into authority?”
This London is an enjoyable book of poetry in its own right, as much for its ambitious engagements with millennia of London history as for the inviting openness of its speakers. That said, I would most highly recommend it for those about to visit London, or those recently returned. It will be a far more engaging volume than your average guide book. One of the final poems, “Note to a Friend Yet to Be Born,” seems to be addressed to just such future readers and visitors. The speaker here invites the addressee to a “leafy park,” or would if he could, but he also helps later readers become resigned to how little we ever possess a place, and how fleeting our time in any place is:
But given enough time, you will join me,
and these streets which you currently command,
these buildings you hustle past, will all be given to another.
That stark reality may help to explain why places in our lives need poetry, or even more so, why we transient lovers of place turn to poetry to appreciate and inhabit that loved place more fully.
Brett Foster‘s poetry and criticism have recently appeared in Books & Culture, Image, Kenyon Review, Poetry East, and Raritan. He teaches creative writing and Renaissance literature at Wheaton College.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com