Wednesday, December 28, 2016

`Almost Indiscernible Adieux'

Philip Larkin’s “Here” (The Whitsun Weddings, 1964) recounts a railway journey from London north to Hull, “swerving through fields / Too thin and thistled to be called meadows.” Some of us savor vacant, ignored, unproductive spaces. Larkin’s train is “swerving to solitude / Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants.” No space, of course, is truly empty because human traces are everywhere. In a letter to Robert Conquest, Larkin described “Here” as “plain description,” but it’s more than that. Once in Hull, “the surprise of a large town,” the scene swarms with hyphenated, Dickensian life: “grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water.” The first twenty-four of the poem’s thirty-two lines are a single sentence, as though Larkin were racing breathlessly to get it all in. Latter parts of the poem read like an impressionistic guide to Hull, until he moves again beyond the city, “beyond its mortgaged half-built edges,” where the poem once again turns Larkinesque:

“. . . Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.”

A journey by train is a useful way to remain an observer. One is aware of the break between urban and rural, and views the unfinished backside of infrastructure as though it were a landscape painting. Louis MacNeice often sets poems on trains. Eric Ormsby in “Railway Stanzas” (Time’s Covenant, 2007) writes as an observer of trains, not a passenger, and already in his lifetime they are fading in memory, though still freighted with emotion. His opening line is “I have always found railway stations sad,” but the poem is not mushy: “And yet, a hankering for depots, terminals, / Is a symptom of good health, a robust mind.” My generation, born into the post-steam era, may be the last to have known the romance of the rails. Trains were sufficiently unfamiliar to become exotic, like props in a Western movie. On my way to work in Houston I cross three sets of tracks, and occasionally I’m stopped three times by slow-passing freight trains. It’s always a happy respite. Though vandalized with graffiti, they are powerful emblems of another, more human-scaled time, and their sounds  -- the engine and whistle, the turning of the wheels, the screech of rails and crunch of ties – speak of freedom and distance. Ormsby writes in his final stanza:

“I do not write this from nostalgia.
I who once revered as a mercy of
certitude the benignity of fact
am skeptical of every reverie
that leads me backward into dubious time.
A sense of destination, though, beguiles
Me still, the piercing and metallic scent
Of almost indiscernible adieux.”

No comments: