To a Locomotive in Winter

This winter, Boston’s record-breaking snowstorms paralyzed the already debt-stressed and out of date MBTA. The transportation system shut down entirely twice. Delays tripled and quadrupled in the days that followed. The general manager quit. Weeks (and weeks) later, plenty of commuters are still dealing with the aftermath.

So it was a treat to visit Switzerland at the end of February and zip around the country by train.

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The smooth, quiet comfort of its interior! The nearly to-the-second reliability! The gorgeous views, from spire-tipped Zurich to countryside, through winding bridge and tunnel to alpine village, up and up, all the way to the base of those singular, massive peaks!

Traveling by train is typically Swiss: in a sweeping way, it says so much about the country and its people, their priorities and preoccupations.

It makes me think of Whitman’s 1876 poem (shown below in its entirety), ¨To a Locomotive in Winter,¨ which celebrates the American train (and American perspective) of the Industrial Revolution.

But the Swiss train, with its punctuality, cleanliness, quality, precision, and range, seems worthy of its own ecstatic poetic apostrophe.

Thee for my recitative,
Thee in the driving storm, even as now, the snow, the winter-day declining,
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur’d dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive,
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass, and silvery steel,
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides,
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the distance,
Thy great protruding head-light fix’d in front,
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple,
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack,
Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels,
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily-following,
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering;
Type of the modern—emblem of motion and power—pulse of the continent,
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see thee,
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind, and falling snow,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.

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The Glacier Express, travelling toward Chur, Switzerland

Fierce-throated beauty!
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.

Phoenix, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Airport

 

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I love the airport. The airport is the destination before the destination, and it always says something, usually something fundamental, about its host city.

Among favorite airports I’ve visited—Zurich, Mexico City, San Diego—my number one might be the airport of my hometown: Phoenix Sky Harbor International. (It doesn’t hurt that Sky Harbor is a great name.)

Sky Harbor perfectly represents the urban landscape of Phoenix. Like the desert roads beyond its walls, its concourses are straight and expansive. Like the inside of an adobe house or a low-slung concrete warehouse, its interior is dark, in extreme contrast to the bright light outside. For the most part, Sky Harbor is plain and no-nonsense, but underneath there seems to lurk something mysterious. Like meeting someone with a flat personality, it makes me wonder what else is going on beyond the surface.

Maybe I love Sky Harbor because it’s the airport of my childhood. Still, I think there’s more to the feeling than simple nostalgia. Something about this airport’s energy captures the essence of travel, of moving towards a new and not entirely understood destination.

Frank Lloyd Wright, who periodically fled the Midwest for Arizona and built his sprawling Taliesin West just outside the city, had a peculiar architectural principle when it came to hallway design. He wanted hallways to feel cramped, uncomfortable, primal. To Wright, passageways should be built to make the person within them feel like a caged animal, physically—even psychologically—constrained. In Wright’s homes, the transition from the hallway to the open space of a room is meant to affect a release—a sensation of freedom and possibility.

Stepping out of a plane to the corridors of Sky Harbor, I feel like I’m passing through something like Wright’s transitional zone, and as I move on—especially on late evenings, the concourses empty and quiet—it seems I have become, or I am just about to become, absolutely free.

 

 

Three Etymologies

ASIMO

ASIMO

¨I’ll order a complete man after a desirable pattern. Imprimis, fifty feet high in his socks; then, chest modelled after the Thames Tunnel; then, legs with roots to ‘em, to stay in one place; then, arms three feet through the wrist; no heart at all, brass forehead, and about a quarter of an acre of fine brains; and let me seeshall I order eyes to see outwards? No, but put a sky-light on top of his head to illuminate inwards.¨


-Chapter 108, ¨Ahab and the Carpenter,¨ Moby Dick (1851)


 

from the Online Etymological Dictionary:

Automaton

1610s, from Latin automaton (Suetonius), from Greek automaton, neuter of automatos “self-acting,” from autos “self” (see auto-) + matos “thinking, animated, willing,” from PIE*mn-to-, from root *men- “to think” (see mind (n.)).

 

Automaton, 1784

Automaton, 1784

Android

“automaton resembling a human being,” 1842, from Modern Latin androides (itself attested as a Latin word in English from 1727), from Greek andro- “human” (see andro-) + -eides “form, shape” (see -oid). Greek androdes meant “like a man, manly;” compare also Greek andrias “image of a man, statue.” Listed as “rare” in OED 1st edition (1879), popularized from c.1951 by science fiction writers.

 

Robot

1923, from English translation of 1920 play “R.U.R.” (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Capek (1890-1938), from Czech robotnik “slave,” from robota “forced labor, compulsory service, drudgery,” from robotiti “to work, drudge,” from an Old Czech source akin to Old Church Slavonic rabota “servitude,” from rabu “slave,” from Old Slavic*orbu-, from PIE *orbh- “pass from one status to another” (see orphan). The Slavic word thus is a cousin to German Arbeit “work” (Old High German arabeit).

Scene from Rossum's Universal Robots

Scene from Rossum’s Universal Robots

A Few Lines from A.R. Ammons

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…it is not so much to know the self
as to know it as it is known
by galaxy and cedar cone,
as though birth had never found it
and death could never end it…


A.R. Ammons, from ¨Gravelly Run¨

Bisbee, Arizona (II)

Even an optimist can’t visit Bisbee without tapping into the town’s darker backbone.

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Bisbee is often advertised as a quirky road trip destination. With its antique shops, art galleries, haunted hotels, copper mine pits, and trendy restaurants, Bisbee’s riches are plentiful. They also do little to hide an obvious drug problem among the residents and a cinematic gloom.

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The contrast makes for an edgy kind of humor.

Inside Whyld Ass, a hippie-run vegan joint, women customers in their sixties bob their heads to Nirvana’s ¨Heart-Shaped Box.¨ On cement staircases leading to old miner’s shacks, teenagers stare hard at passersby. At the food co-op, a request for a sandwich from the employee behind the sandwich counter is met with bewilderment:

¨It’s not possible. I wish I could. But the system just isn’t set up for it!¨

Systems are hard to come by in Bisbee, at least official or functioning ones. Even so, the Cochise County Courthouse, preserved from the town’s mining heyday, surveys the town from its hilltop.

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Bisbee, Arizona

Near the U.S.-Mexico border and isolated within the Mule Mountains of Southern Arizona, this former mining town has a layered, living past that its residents can’t escape (or don’t want to escape).


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The Double

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Deep within a used bookshop in Marseille, I discovered a book of poetry by Jules Supervielle, a poet well-known in France but little known in America.

The book, titled Poems: 1939-1945,  is concerned above all with the state of France in a time of war. Supervielle’s poems are populated with symbolic animals, trees, oceans, and skies, and as I first flipped through the book, his style reminded me a bit of Wallace Stevens, especially in the circular, giving way the poet’s subjects bleed into one another, leaving no firm truths or times, nothing definite to hang on to.

The physical book itself struck me as special. The printing date is stamped on the last page: December 20, 1945. Just a few months after the end of World War II. Made of delicate, browned, shaggy-edged stock paper and wrapped in an old wax paper protector, the book is remarkably preserved and cared for.

Written in graying ink—not on the cover’s inside flap, not on the title page, but on the upper right corner of the first page of poetry—is a woman’s name. Her first name is easy to make out: Monique. But her family name is unclear.

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Monique Ballat? Monique Balmat? The last name is underscored with one bold, confident line, as if Monique’s ownership of this text—and her identity—were firmly resolved.

But who was she, and how did she come into possession of this book? Did she read it as a young girl, or as an older woman, as mother, a grandmother? How did she take these poems, with the destruction of war still so present and reverberating?

And more: how long had this book waited in this dusty bookstore, waiting for a new reader? Monique and I: have we been the sole two owners of this book? What drew both of us to it: something about us—our likeness?

Later that afternoon, I rushed to Marseille’s main library, off the wide Canebiére that leads to the city’s extravagant port, and I translated one of the poems. It seemed to speak directly to me. I wonder if Monique read it, and if it spoke to her as well.

The Double

My double approaches. He looks at me.
He says: ¨Ah there he is! the one who dreams,
who imagines he’s alone (as I watch him
lower his eyes and plunge into misery.)
Dark, dark, darker: in this black night
he cannot hide; it’s bound now to my solitude.
I too am thrown to the depths of sleep. I rise
to seek him—not as a wolf, so gray-like, rude—
but rather as electric light, too soft
and weak to scare him off. I approach myself
in him; I study him there. I shine on the thing
that escapes his heart. I signal it to come to me.¨