Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Two Trains

The bit of conversation I had with Readersguide in the comments about Symbolism According to Cliff's Notes reminded me of a Tony Hoagland poem that I enjoyed because it builds up and then shoots down a couple of symbolic meanings:

Two Trains

Then there was that song called "Two Trains Running,"
a Mississippi blues they play on late-night radio,
that program after midnight called FM in the AM,
--well, I always thought it was about trains.

Then somebody told me it was about what a man and woman do
under the covers of their bed, moving back and forth
like slow pistons in a shiny black locomotive,
the rods and valves trying to stay coordinated

long enough that they will "get to the station"
at the same time. And one of the trains
goes out of sight into the mountain tunnel,
but when they break back into the light

the other train has somehow pulled ahead,
the two trains running like that, side by side,
first one and then the other, with the fierce white
bursts of smoke puffing from their stacks,
into a sky so sharp and blue you want to die.

So then for a long time I thought the song was about sex.

But then Mack told me that all train songs
are really about Jesus, about how the second train
is shadowing the first, so He walks in your footsteps
and He watches you from behind, He is running with you,

He is your brakeman and your engineer,
your coolant and your coal,
and He will catch you when you fall,
and when you stall He will push you through
the darkest mountain valley, up the steepest hill,

and the rough chuff chuff of His fingers on the washboard
and the harmonica woo woo is the long soul cry by which He
pulls you through the bloody tunnel of the world.
So then I thought the two trains song was a gospel song.

Then I quit my job in Santa Fe and Sharon drove
her spike heel through my heart
and I got twelve years older and Dean moved away,
and now I think the song might be about good-byes--

because we are no even in the same time zone,
or moving at the same speed, or perhaps even
headed toward the same destination--
forgodsakes, we are not even trains!

What grief it is to love some people like your own
blood, and then to see them simply disappear;
to feel time bearing us away
one boxcar at a time.

And sometimes, sitting in my chair
I can feel the absence stretching out in all directions--
like the deaf, defoliated silence
just after a train has thundered past the platform,

just before the mindless birds begin to chirp again
--and the wildflowers that grow beside the tracks
wobble wildly on their little stems,
then gradually grow still and stand

motherless and vertical in the middle of everything.

I don't approve of the idea that a song or a poem has to be "about" something besides what it actually says; I like to read literally, at least at first. The wildflower at the end can still be a wildflower--it doesn't have to be the speaker. The speaker is putting himself in the place of the flower, maybe, and feeling the same way--left behind, trying to grow a backbone.

The only thing I like about imagining a book is about something other than what it says is the possibilities it offers for playing games like the one the kids and I were playing this morning. If the book was about any period in history previous to the 20th century, we appended "IN SPACE!" (A Tale of Two Cities...IN SPACE!) and if the book was already set in space, we appended "in Victorian London" to the title (Footfall...IN VICTORIAN LONDON!)

Can you think of some good ones along those lines?


FreshHell said...

Tom Jones..IN SPACE! Othello...IN SPACE! I can't think of any books that already take place in space except A Wrinkle in Time...IN VICTORIAN LONDON.

How's that?

Ron Griggs said...

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote about his dislike of allegory:

I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

When someone wants to know what a poem is "about," they are assuming the purposed domination of the author, giving up their freedom as a reader.

Ron Griggs said...

The Empire Strikes Back...IN VICTORIAN LONDON!

Stranger in a Strange Land...IN VICTORIAN LONDON!

War of the Worlds...IN VICTO---oh, wait a minute.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, we saw a cartoon in a motel room one time called Macbeth In Space!
Ron, oh yeah, on all counts. And War of the Worlds--ha!!!

FreshHell said...

Empire Strikes Back isn't a book! Cheating!

Anonymous said...

I like this poem, although to tell you the truth the flower brought other things to mind. But maybe that's the point. In Space. Did you know that #3 is available at amazon.co.uk? Just thought you should be aware . . . (Now I cannot find that cliff notes comment -- where is it? It's driving me crazy.)

Jeanne said...

Readersguide, the comment is in "My Day In the Sun" because it was your response to one of my interviews.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeanne said...

I'm still getting spam in Chinese; that's what was deleted.

Sherck said...

I like Ron's citation of Tolkien in this context. Since, in a sense, we're already talking about analogies, let me make one by way of music. On theory of meaning in music holds that what's going on is that our emotional life has certain qualities (which, I suppose, are themselves somewhat metaphorical), such as a sense of size (emotional states can feel expansive or drawn into ourselves, for example), speed, density, etc, and music has qualities which can mirror or suggest these states. Now, it may or may not be the case that a composer has a particular experience in mind when composing, but outside of explicit "program music," we don't really have access to that, and music can't really suggest concrete experiences without some kind of explanatory text. BUT it gives a SENSE of meaning through its qualities, through its ability to give a sort of metaphorical representation of emotional experience, which we can then experience on its own terms or project our own emotional experiences upon it.

That's what I thought of when reading that poem... the song, in its literal meaning, has certain characteristics that mirror other experiences, be they sexual, religious, love and grief... whatever. They have applicability, as the Tolkien quote suggests, which is actually more powerful in its way than the definite meanings of allegory. Symbolism at its most powerful isn't just the bastard child of allegory, it's a stronger version because it's suggestive, evocative, more than proscriptive.

Jeanne said...

Sherck, I like your use of the word "applicability." It goes farther than anything else ever has to reconcile me to the inclusion of song lyrics in anthologies of poetry, although I think you're talking about music in general, and not just songs with words.

Sherck said...

I am (and, of course, I *did* borrow "applicability" from the Tolkien quote--credit where it's due!), but the thing I may not have articulated clearly enough is that I suspect that the same way that music can function as a metaphor for emotional experiences, so too can the literal details of a poem or piece of prose function--regardless of author intent--in a similar fashion. Reading the song lyrics as "about" any of the things that the author does, while misguided in one sense points to the way that reading symbolically can make us think about one thing in a different way because we're looking at it in light of another. "Ah!" we say, "love is like two trains..." or whatever.

Jeanne said...

Sherck, Isn't that more like metaphor than symbolism--seeing one thing in light of another?

Sherck said...

You know, looking back at my comment, I'm not even entirely sure what I was saying--I definitely needed a writing center critique to clarify my expression there. Now I can't remember it well enough to just revise, so let me start over. :)

In this context, I suppose I'm playing a bit freely with the term "symbolism." Symbolism as a technique descends from allegory, and it's sometimes as heavy-handed as allegory, while at other times it's ambiguous enough that we can't really be sure whether an author is being symbolic. However, we've been sufficiently conditioned in our reading that we tend to look for it anyway, so it becomes a habit of reading as much as a technique of writing. In that case, because we're looking for "deeper meaning," the details that we're reading symbolically act as metaphors. And--especially when they're either ambiguous or not even intended by the author, the literal details can become for the reader--as in this case--metaphors for something else.

How's that?

Jeanne said...

Sherck, That makes more sense to me. I completely agree it becomes a habit of reading.