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Overture to a Dance of Locomotives -- William Carlos Williams

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1636) Overture to a Dance of Locomotives
 Men with picked voices chant the names
 of cities in a huge gallery: promises
 that pull through descending stairways
 to a deep rumbling.

                  The rubbing feet
 of those coming to be carried quicken a
 grey pavement into soft light that rocks
 to and fro, under the domed ceiling,
 across and across from pale
 earthcoloured walls of bare limestone.

 Covertly the hands of a great clock
 go round and round! Were they to
 move quickly and at once the whole
 secret would be out and the shuffling
 of all ants be done forever.

 A leaning pyramid of sunlight, narrowing
 out at a high window, moves by the clock;
 discordant hands straining out from
 a center: inevitable postures infinitely
 repeated -


 Porters in red hats run on narrow platforms.

 This way ma'am!
                - important not to take
 the wrong train!

                Lights from the concrete
 ceiling hang crooked but -
                             Poised horizontal
 on glittering parallels the dingy cylinders
 packed with warm glow - inviting entry -
 pull against the hour. But brakes can
 hold a fixed posture till -
                            The whistle!

 Not twoeight. Not twofour. Two!

 Gliding windows. Coloured cooks sweating
 in a small kitchen. Taillights -
 In time: twofour!
 In time: twoeight!

  - rivers are tunneled: trestles
 cross oozy swampland: wheels repeating
 the same gesture remain relatively
 stationary: rails forever parallel
 return on themselves infinitely.
                          The dance is sure.
-- William Carlos Williams
It takes a very special poet to see and capture the beauty of something as
banal as a railway station. It takes a very special poet to take the sheer
mundaneness of the experience of entering that station and to turn it into
an allegory and a vision of human existence. It takes a very special poet to
convey, with incredible clarity, not only the sight of the terminal, but
also its sounds and its rhythms. It takes a very special poet to combine the
easy realism of "two-twofour-twoeight!" with the analytic precision of
"inevitable postures infinitely repeated". It takes a very special poet to
make something as clunky as an old steam locomotive dance.

It takes William Carlos Williams. What moves me about this poem is the sheer
beauty of it, the extravagence of the conceit and the breathtaking way that
Williams pulls it off. It's amazing how exact Williams' observations are -
to see what I mean just try boarding a train from Grand Central station with
"promises / that pull through deep stairways / to a deep rumbling" running
through your head. And it's fascinating how the poem is truly an overture -
how there's a distinct sense at the end of having been launched into some
great adventure, of a rhythm building to some grand waltz. Just the way you
feel when you're starting a long train journey and the train finally pulls
out of the station and into the countryside.


P.S. Is it just me, or does this poem read like a cubist or Dada-ist
painting - like something Marcel Duchamp would have painted?

47 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

John Burstow said...

I get a "what hell have we wrought?" feeling from this poem.

--John Burstow

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