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This winter, Boston’s record-breaking snowstorms paralyzed the already debt-stressed and out of date MBTA.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 were 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.

The Double

 

In September, in 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.

As I first flipped through the book, titled Poems: 1939-1945, Supervielle’s 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 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.¨

Eleven Perfect Lines

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¨Who is the mortal who can live forever?
The life of man is short. Only the gods

can live forever. Therefore put on new clothes,
a clean robe and a cloak tied with a sash,

and wash the filth of the journey from your body.
Eat and drink your fill of the food and drink

men eat and drink. Let there be pleasure and dancing.¨
But Gilgamesh replied to the tavern keeper:

¨Tell me the way to find the only one
of men by means of whom I might find out

how death can be avoided. Tell me the way…¨

 

from David Ferry’s ¨Gilgamesh,¨ Tablet X

The Lowest Key

“…the poet’s habit of living should be set on a key so low that the common influences should delight him.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet”


 

Lately, I have had a lot of free time. It has been hard to find time to do much, what with all my time taken up in being free.

Passing the slow, quiet days in and around my apartment, treading familiar ground, I am sometimes lucky enough to find my little world grow larger, more connected and fantastic.

At the base of my front door steps a pile of oak leaves has gathered, peppered with broken acorns. I look up at the oak branches, branches I’ve never looked at before, where these exact leaves and fruits must have shaded my first steps to the street, spirit-like, in summer.

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Walking along the driveway, too, I notice the Japanese paper fox balloon hanging from my kitchen window. It was taped there a few years ago as an afterthought and forgotten. Now, the fox seems to be staring at the neighboring apartment’s window. How long has the fox stared this way? Have my neighbors felt watched? Watched over? Protected?

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Behind the house, one tree is bare of leaves but full of squirrels, although it’s easier to hear them than to spot them. The tree must be full of nests.

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Last winter, on a late January night, a Chinese family gathered in the adjacent parking lot and launched traditional New Year’s paper lanterns. One lantern, on its ascent, flew into the tree and caught fire. It burned, the flame growing larger and larger in the wind, threatening to sweep to the garage roof. The lantern became tangled in the bare branches, though, and the fire extinguished there a few minutes later.

It was the last lantern they sent up. But others were still visible in the sky, sailing off at intervals—lanterns with ¨chambers,¨ like those Elizabeth Bishop describes, that ¨flush and fill with light/that comes and goes, like hearts¨:

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

(from ¨The Armadillo¨)

Brooklyn Heights: Construction

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself (3)


 

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Four Suns


 

…what spirit
Have I except it comes from the sun?

Wallace Stevens, from ¨Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu¨


 

 

There may be nothing so reliable as the sun.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESRabat, Morocco

 

Despite its turbulence, it is one of the few things we can count on;

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it is the closest thing we have to a fact.

SAM_0286Marseille, France

 

Thirty minutes north of Marseille, near a small Provencal town, an experimental synthetic star is under construction. The ITER Tokomak, which will take at least twenty years to complete, is designed to mimic the sun’s power and offer future generations an alternative, sustainable energy source.

Human-built, in process, hypothetical, it is an idea, and it throws everything known and enduring into question.

si-ITER2Photo credit: ITER Research Center