Tuesday, November 24, 2020

'The Colors of Disused Railyards in Winter'

“The strange-ness of railroad yards — North from Youngstown — A straight line snow – pale woods dense swamps – scrawny stumps & elm trees — the old Thanksgiving mood commences — fence posts & dead weeds have a strange look –“


By the time I was a boy, diesel had replaced most steam-powered locomotives. Much of the romance associated with the railroad should by then have evaporated, but the nature of nostalgia is such that it persists even when we never knew its object first-hand. Not counting the rapid-transit line in Cleveland, I rode my first train in France in 1973. The sound of a train whistle and a brief view of shining rails still evoke visions of the Territory ahead, an earlier America.


The passage at the top is from an entry the painter Charles Burchfield made in his journal on this date, November 24, in 1917. He was living in Salem, Ohio, about twenty-five miles southwest of Youngstown. The world viewed from a train is often scruffy and unimproved -- marshes, woods, collapsing fences, scrapyards, the backsides of rundown houses. Who chooses to live next to a rail line if he has a choice in the matter? Burchfield writes like a painter. His woods are “pale.” In November in Northern Ohio, trees are leafless. “Strange” shows up twice in this brief passage. Early winter in such a landscape is stark and monochromatic. The “old Thanksgiving mood” sounds like a very private reference, certainly not warm and festive. Burchfield’s father, a tailor, died when he was five years old.


The poet Eric Ormsby was born in Georgia, grew up in Florida and wouldn’t know a Northern winter for many years, yet he too seems drawn to railroads and winter landscapes. See “Railway Stanzas” in Coastlines (1992) and here is “Railyard in Winter” (Bavarian Shrine and Other Poems, 1990):


“The colors of disused railyards in winter;

the unnamed shades of iron at four o’clock;

the sun’s curiosity along abraded stones;

corrosion that mines the speckled lichen of woods;

the islands of stubbly rust on padlocked doors;

the fierce shoots of winter grass among cinders;

the fragile dim light, infused with tannin,

that falls clear on the stamped bottle glass

and regales the cast-off boot.

The colors of shale

cratered with dark rain. The rough knots

of crabgrass near the steps of the loading dock

and their sandy, scruffed umber.

The hues

of all negligible things: the nugatory blue

of slag chunks between the ties. Then, the smell

of those resinous blisters of red on the fence,

like a childhood of pines.

Such unpeopled places

luxuriate on Sundays. What was made for use

discloses in uselessness its transient magic,

assumes the radiance of the useless grasses.”


Like a painter, Ormsby is a sensualist of surfaces. Like Burchfield, he sees beauty in the useless. See Burchfield’s watercolor November Railroad Mood, painted in 1946.

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