I’ve just spent a full week riding the rails, crossing the United States from east to west and back again on Amtrak because my husband was going to the big American geography conference in Seattle and we thought this would be the best way to travel. (I am so off airport security, I can’t even write a poem about it.)
We took the northern route there, which proved to be a soggy choice, one that delayed us for a full day on an embankment above the brown flooded fields of North Dakota. Then we came home down the west coast to orange blossom-scented Sacramento and across through the Sierra Nevada to Salt Lake City (at 3 am), the Rocky Mountains, and down into the golden plains to Denver and finally, Chicago, where we abandoned the train to fly home as the times didn’t work from there on.
All this is to explain why I won’t be showing you much more than a minimal edit of a poem today. To my surprise, since this was supposed to be a holiday, I have written non-stop since leaving home on April 7th. I had, of course, planned on writing a poem a day while away. A good musician always keeps their chops in shape. But I have written more than eight hours a day, including during the conference, since I sat in on a few geography of poetry sessions which I found inspirational too.
I also took pictures during the trip and, on the way home, video since I realized, partway through, that I was clearly working on a second book of poems, currently called The Four Seasons, as I plan on taking this same train trip another three times. Okay, I know it’s not an original title, but it too will probably be edited when I have time to breathe again.
Because I need to start editing what I’ve written. By the time you read this post, written on the train, I will have only just arrived home. My inbox will be full of files sent from my phone with the most recent work in them. Some poems exist as fragments, some as longer chunks, and some as major sections of text as I finally stopped trying to format them as poems on my phone’s small screen and decided to just write and leave the formatting to later. I’d like to see this book published as an e-book so it can incorporate the video with the poetry.
Today, I’m going to share just a first thought on this amazing country, this astonishing landscape. I had not expected to fall in love with the States, but that’s my usual mistake of thinking politics are the sum total of a place, which is, of course, nonsense.
It remains a sadness, however. The poverty is visible in the rural States, with many communities at least half made up of trailer homes, some parked so close together, they breathe each others’ air. And too many houses are peeled paint, shingles thinned and patchy. There is a lot of money here, in the monster homes. But there is a lot of hunger too.
The poem below doesn’t look in that direction. It started as a fragment before we left but was written and edited on our first Amtrak ride from Montreal to Schenectady, as we passed a long frozen lake full of birds.
Today you see the black birds from the fields
and white birds flying from the sea and hear
the chittering of sparrows in bushes under
the blue sky, nesting cries, the wild voices free
on the still cold wind, the red buds forming,
like the flames in a fire just catching and you
with your hands held out rejoicing in
the new warmth each new red-gold flicker
brings, the wild shoots, the fresh greens,
the tight unfurlings
This poem shows once again why poetry is not filed under either non-fiction or fiction, why it simply is. I may have been writing about the birds I saw in a lake, but at no point did I want to write that word into the poem. In the first draft, I used sea, but that was because the first two lines are the original fragment of the poem, pre-train. When I revised it, I didn’t want the harsh sound of the ‘k’ in lake. ‘Pond’ lingers much better in that line. Yes, the ‘k’ could have found its echo in the ‘c’ of conversations but by using ‘pond’, that ‘c’ is softened too, all the consonants become rounder.
I chose ‘conversation’ for two reasons: ‘chittering’ is a somewhat overdone verb in relation to sparrows (I’d hate to do a count on it in my own poems) and ‘conversation’ is more intimate and of course was what I was overhearing as I typed, since I couldn’t actually hear the birds we were passing.
After that, I rearranged what was in the original, slipping in what I was seeing before me in the landscape, maintaining the perspective of my new title, but also remembering that brightness is always brighter if there is some darkness. You’ll know this if you edit your photographs. Just adding fill light or highlights whitens out a picture. You always need a bit of contrast to make it work. That’s why I added what I could hear, the train’s cry, ‘the voice of lonely’ and the ‘faint glisten of hoarfrost’ our late spring has left over the land.
So this is the current version of the poem. I’ve read a lot of wonderful poetry on this trip, thanks to the excellent Poetry Foundation iPhone app, and have learned how far I still have to go.
Moving Towards Rejoicing
Today you see the black birds from the fields
and white birds filling a blue pond and overhear
the conversations of sparrows in the bushes by
the red buds forming, flames in a fire catching and you,
hands held out, singing with the red-gold
flickers, the wild shoots, the tight unfurlings,
fresh greens upthrust in leaf-scent, earth running
in brown-streamed gurgling. The sun
blinds you, slipped-disc following you around
the sky, but you refuse to let it go without
the warmth spring beds deserve even though
you hear a train’s cry, the voice
of lonely in the dimming sky. You’re moving
towards rejoicing, only a faint glisten
of hoarfrost holding you down.