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This winter, Boston’s record-breaking snowstorms paralyzed the already debt-stressed and out of date MBTA.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


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.

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)









Marseille: Construction

Piece by piece, Marseille is being ripped apart and rebuilt, just as it has been, time and again, for thousands of years.


Construction workers do more than labor: they have a hand, practical and direct, in the creation and recreation of a place. In Marseille, they build upon the work of the city’s founders and leave their own for future change.


It’s cosmic work, and it makes me think of this passage from Whitman’s Song of Myself:


I am an acme of things accomplished, and I am encloser of things to be.

My feet strike an apex of the apices of stairs,
On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps,
All below duly travel’d, and still I mount and mount.

Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me,
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, I know I was even there,
I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,
And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.

Long I was hugg’d close–long and long.

Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.





Nice: Ecstatic Places

If I remember correctly, the first five minutes or so of François Truffaut’s film L’argent de poche (¨pocket money¨) follows crowds of schoolchildren descending staircases across the town of Thiers, France. The waves of children seem endless; the stairs seem endless. It’s an ebullient, hopeful expression of our perpetual passage from each moment to the next, tempered just a touch by an adult’s sober recognition, or dread, of the inevitable.
In France, it’s also a sight as common as spare change. Every weekday afternoon, the late afternoon bells ring and children emerge out of doors and stream down staircases, spilling onto the sidewalks and streets that were empty just a few minutes before.
The noise (le bruit) emanating from these schools before or after each bell is extraordinary. All of a sudden the neighborhood lights up, burns, and burns until the noise extinguishes itself. It reminds me of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, where thousands of blackbirds pack into trees and simultaneously call to one another, with overwhelming pitch and confusion, for a more or less precise period of time every evening.
The children all seem to be yelling; the only message to be taken is some urgent need for action, although sometimes, especially in the mornings, one voice will rise above the others: ¨Maman! Maman! Maman! Maman! Maman!¨  
A special church can be found in a typical neighborhood of Nice: L’Eglise Sainte-Jeanne d’Arc, a church where even the non-religious visitor can experience a spiritual moment.
Its unusual architecture strikes the passerby from afar.


Passing from the sunlight to the candlelit interior, the visitor is drawn into a space both modest and grandiose, marked by a spare richness: two rustic organs, hand-carved wooden chairs, rounded stucco walls that sweep to the sky, punctuated at the ceiling’s mid-height by simple stained glass.
Prominent on the right side of the church is a painted sculpture of Jeanne d’Arc. Her face stuns. A paradoxical clear blend of emotions live within it, notably sadness (mourning) countered by hope, and modesty countered by courage.
Stepping back outside the visitor feels the depth of the church’s darkness and the depth of the sunlight; it is like having been washed with ancient water in shadow and then being released to the bright world to dry.


You sea! I resign myself to you also—I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me,
We must have a turn together. I undress, hurry me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.
Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself (22)