No 10 - Spring 2001
Canada - America
The train moves out along the shore
of Lake Ontario over bridged bays
and inlets, past Jordan and Dalhousie
once ship-busy harbours,
that disappear into sallow march
then re-emerge as a thousand white
wings rise from the still open water's grey.
Passing uniform acres of small naked trees,
the veteran conductress reveals
she loves to travel this route in Spring
when from both sides, blossoms
white and pink overtake the orchards.
"Niagara Falls is this stop," she informs.
'Since the 1840s Honeymoon Capital'
she might have once trumpeted
though hard to believe its love-advantage
this cold solid grey December noon.
At the Canadian window side, the passenger,
tucked up under her fur-lapel coat, like me is alone.
A red and blue pom-pom, as if a parting corsage,
is fastened to the handle of her big, weathery case.
"Can we see some tenderness?"
The sleepwalking voyeur desired from Christmas Present
in the CBC dramatisation on TV last night.
Crossing the frontier, spanning the primal gorge
that divides, has never been easier.
The Niagara, narrowed to a single channel, unveils
concealed rock-designs - carvings an artisan
obsessively re-works - confirming a friend's stance -
walking two days back along disclosed shingles
by jade rollers: "Never seen Lake Erie so low".
The U. S. custom officers board, decorated
with badges sublime as the Falls, and dark-handled guns.
'Just the facts, mam,' it seems
a vintage Dragnet detective requires,
a reinflated Sergeant Joe Friday.
"The U. S. recognises one citizenship only,"
states the official from his navy windbreaker, disowning,
like a past president, all hyphened nationalities.
Out the stationary window
the rusted sumac tops
and purple of wild raspberry canes
look madly similar
to those entangled on the other side.
embellish the glass,
the TV weather-woman's
Yesterday, in a downtown gift-store,
looking hard into each jewellery case,
my intent was intercepted.
"Excuse me," a female stranger pulled,
holding up two objects
for inspection, "You're a man
which of these rings do you think
my husband would prefer?"
In abeyance, in the border-zone,
after an irritating delay -
tire tracks from the custom vehicles
having left on the tacky ground
decorative arcs -
the train starts to edge forward, its wheels squealing
petulantly toward the next land-fall.
At breakfast, my mother spoke of her travels
during the thirties' Depression, to New York City:
an excited young girl peering out
the rear side-window of the family car.
Slowing up at some lights, she said, a youth leapt
from nowhere on to the running board.
"Cars had running boards then," mum inserted.
The boy hollered, "Got somewhere to stay?"
"No!" the joint answer. So he grinned widely,
clutched the door handles, fixed his feet to the rubber tread,
hanging on in Keystone Cop style, directing
the family to a nice clean hotel off Time Square.
She told the story, as if perplexed by that outcome:
him receiving from the driver, no doubt, a five-star tip.
This side, back then, Canadian plates were rare.
During prohibition, a New Yorker fooled,
"Haven't you guys smuggled some drink?"
What other reason to tour dry America?
In another adventure, I was told, the family
obediently followed an AAA map into Harlem
and after a crazy day ended up begging for sleep.
"OK!" the hotelier finally conceded,
"I guess we can sneak a few whities in."
Into Buffalo the train grumpily shutters and shunts
below high-tension wires spun, tower to tower,
out over hinterland from Niagara's upward smoke,
and under expressway bridges, every warning sign lit.
Between the railway cars brash rain splashes down;
while out through the glass it turns to indeterminate snow.
Now hardly lighting on quick-passing branchwork
the white stuff begins petering from view.
I enter a conversation with an American,
on business, travelling down to New York,
who starts to trace his Italian Irish roots.
Barely breaking into an open exchange
before he asserts: "My grandfather was murdered
in 1917. Killed in a village one night
in the Virginia coalfields, him and three others.
No immigrant's grave. Barbed wire pulled tight
round a tree marked where he'd died.
Grandmother, still carrying my father,
was a witness. The truth never came out.
I came back, years on, and saw a bulge
where the trunk had grown over his straps of iron."
Now it's dark out the shivering windows.
Almost all passengers have changed.
I glimpse myself in the dark glass, writing,
somehow getting to the bottom of it.
Frail winter orchards seem far behind
back toward a beginning almost blacked-out.
Then remember I must phone home when I arrive.
Across the café car's Arbourite table
my American fellow journeyer stares
with creased expectancy, stressing the tragedy's details;
then adds he's licensed to carry a firearm
and spends the next hour defending his stance
as an American right. "I never draw out my gun,"
he alleges, "as a threat, only to kill." Far ahead
the train hollers and hoots a subdued protracted cry
of warning, moaning onwards, 'Look out! Look out!'
as if a sole night flying bird's impassioned call.
To him I explain my frenzied reaction -
I see those brisk U. S. custom guards
with their black, polished and snug revolvers
and I want to snatch the brute from its holster,
point the snout in their fuckin' blank faces - reverse
that power - asserting my right to self-annihilation.
The passenger train shifts, back and forth, speeding
toward a reason. Its links squeaking and rattling.
There's nothing to record outside, except
against blackness the orange smudges passing
now and then multiplying as a lit-up station nears
that's never half as deserted or packed as in a film.
Through space a tunnel seems opened
as in a precognitive way to see the unseen
one more long drawn out hoot is expelled
toward Rochester, followed by Syracuse, on to Albany.
Sometimes lights flashing by look distant as stars.
Until, between them and me, I imagine a cosmos.
My mother's journeys down New York State,
in her father's car, were glossed by the quest
for discovery: that kept the Rockafeller Centre
the Street Arabs, the Empire State and '39 World Fair
on a human scale; made her young dreams approachable.
Currently, without a conspicuous illness, she
travels toward her fantastic end, just bit by bit
to a lesser and lesser here and now, from which
there is no return, just as gran once claimed.
One day in the car, of herself and dad, she said,
"We're shrinking...." Repeated the phrase -
I felt their expanding absence.
Through the moisture-leaden night the horn sounds
and resounds; keeps surfacing, far out of its depth.
When my destination's reached the train's motion
clicketty clack and prolonged hooting goes on in me.
Fragmentary lights on varied levels keep parading.
Over a relaxed dinner, just as a new dialogue starts
I attempt once more to find an image for that
arresting call... its abstruse, repetitive sounding-out.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The