The Train—Meudon, 1928
Hangs suspended in time at the edge of the picture frame,
its smoke trailing east, following the engine’s glide
along the line of the high bridge—
over the river, over treetops, concrete, and oxen—
over the nightingale that rests
in the shadow of the cathedral’s arched windows.
Each day morning glides in beneath
the train’s suspended shadow, beneath the turning,
sputtering, steel wheels that grind through dust and grime,
grinding the air the world is building,
until the flat package of noonday is wrapped
inside the faces of those who stand waiting,
until the chin watches the sky
from behind the shutters’ bristling clapboards
and a man looks out, watching how I watch him,
over and over, from outside the picture,
his right arm shielding a brown-papered parcel,
his left thumb pressed against the object’s neatly-turned upper corner.
He’s gray hat and thin, silken tie.
He’s two long arms roaming the flat emptiness
that holds him
while the train moves on, moves on,
through a space never-changing, melting
its trails of smoke, layer upon layer, into the sky.
(originally published in Ekphrasis, A Poetry Journal; Spring/Summer, 2008)
Ekphrasis: from the Greek ek, “out of,” and phrasis, “speech” or “expression,” originally referred to a written passage of description. The ekphrastic poem evolved from this intersection between seeing and language, to go beyond the purely descriptive as the poet sought to make from this encounter a new and original artifact.
Some of my earliest attempts at writing poems were ekphrastic poems. I didn’t know that term at the time, but the approach made sense. I was an art student in a liberal arts college, studying and making art, but also fulfilling a range of other academic requirements. I was a reader. And a listener. Words and their sounds, when I wrote poems, were as materially real to me, and varied, as marks made with a stick of charcoal on a sheet of paper. Writing a poem that began with looking at a painting or photograph, etc., seemed like a natural source for subject matter. It was a starting point. A way in. I didn’t hold myself captive to the “facts” of the image once I started writing. I still work this way, wanting to find out where entering this territory—the one that I see in the image before me—will take me.
I’ve long felt an affinity for the photographs of Hungarian-born photographer André Kertész (1894-1985), especially the earlier works. With Meudon, 1928, it was that train, crossing right to left the upper strata of the photograph, that first pulled me in. It called to mind the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, those cityscapes devoid of human presence, and also the trains of my childhood, carrying their carloads of coal, coke, and scrap iron alongside the steel mills edging the Monongahela.
The train almost defies gravity. It feels as if it is both weightless and the image’s most active force. A male force in a man’s world. Unstoppable. And yet: frozen in time. I entered the photograph at the point of the train and from there, worked my way down. Train led to bridge, bridge led to what I imagined was happening in the space beneath, then to the buildings lining the street, to the man in the foreground, holding his package. Then, finally, full circle and back to the train.
Sound associations pushed me forward. The short i sound in bridge certainly suggested the related short i of river. In the same way, going on somewhere beneath the surface of consciousness while I wrote, looked, and listened: glide led to line and high, then to nightingale, glides, grime, grinding, etc. – sound leading to sound, image to image, all by association, speeding along fast as that train.
Certainly the year 1928 resonated as I worked: the time between two world wars, the year before the worldwide Great Depression; everything is changing, changing…. And, as I write this, I realize that it’s the year that stands at nearly the half-point in time between the end of the first WW and the onset of the second. Did I consciously plan this when I had the man in the foreground holding the flat package of noonday ? Absolutely not. It kind of thrills me to discover this several years after writing it. And confirms—again, again!—my faith in the mysterious and enduring work of the unconscious as it relates to the creative process. It is the work that goes on within, making connections for us even if we think we’re not “working”. No. We’re always working.