Sometimes, as a writer, an idea strikes you so much that you decide to honor it as a personal truism. You hold this truth to be self-evident; the job, then, is explaining how the sun rose on this dawning.
Today’s poem, by the late Jim Harrison, is a great example of one of these abstract truths made concrete. If you can build the idea to the poem’s last line as Harrison does, so much the better. And if the raison d’être is rooted in imagery (here the sounds and sights of trains powered by coal furnaces), better still.
What I like especially is the concept of something appearing to be eternal: the poet ages from boy to man (subject to both change and eventual demise), but the object of his poem seems to be eternal. For me, this idea often springs from animals and nature, but for Harrison, the old train works equally well. Let’s see how.
Kooser called from Nebraska to say he’d found…
Kooser called from Nebraska to say he’d found
a large cinder on a long walk along abandoned
country railroad tracks, a remnant of steam
trains, the cinder similar to those our fathers
shoveled from coal furnaces in the early winter mornings
before stoking the fire. In your dark bedroom
you’d hear the scrape of the shovel and the thump
when cinders were dropped in metal washtubs.
Now the trains are all diesel and in Livingston at night
I hear them pass, Burlington & Northern, the horn
an immense bassoon warning the drunks at crossings.
Some complain but I love this night music,
imagining that some of the railroad cars are from
my youth when I stood in a pasture and thrilled
to my favorite, “Route of the Phoebe Snow.”
To be excited by a cinder is to be excited about life.
I don’t know about you, but I love “In your dark bedroom / you’d hear the scrape of the shovel and the thump / when cinders were dropped in metal washtubs.” Even if you’re too young to have known these sounds, Harrison makes them real through his description. This talent is a must in the poet’s toolbox.
Then, the train’s horn: “an immense bassoon warning the drunks at crossings.” And the lovely flourish at the end: “To be excited by a cinder is to be excited about life.” That says it all, no? And the readers know it, because each of us could replace “a cinder” with something—seemingly small—that makes us excited about life. Think about it.
Though nowhere near as accomplished, my poem “Here and Gone” was going for the same strategy as Harrison’s: the concept of eternity in the form of something from the past (in this case minnows, dragonflies, and small-mouth bass) looking the same while time works its cruelties on its observer. It’s from my second collection, Lost Sherpa of Happiness:
Here and Gone
excluding a war zone
human death remains
the mad relative
hidden from sight
files and catalogues
its dead on the public
narrative of roads
looking down on these shallows
at this same school of minnows
hanging in the same green-peg balance
as last month;
this same dragonfly
stutter-flying the water’s stippled surface
as last summer;
these small-mouth bass
swimming over the same soul shadows
against gold-gilled sand
as ten years ago;
am I reminded of you
and why would this moment
choose me to endure the eternity
inherent in minnows, dragonflies,
and soul shadows
What about you? What sounds, smells, sights, tastes, or touch sensations seem eternal and timeless in your world? What simple thing makes you excited about life?
Write about it!