Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review: Elegy for Trains

Benjamin Myers
Village Books Press, 2010
82 pp/68 poems

From the opening line, Benjamin Myers’ verse in Elegy for Trains appealed to me because some of it reminds me of my own: short lines, short poems. But Myers is a far greater poet than I, and this collection is filled with lines I love as well as ones that blind me with jealousy over the level of craft, which is the greatest indicator that I will adore a given writer’s work forever; for example, I still cannot read Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” without dying a bit inside--the beauty of it is that overwhelming--and as it happens, Myers has his own Whitman moments.

Myers pays homage to the Earth in “Song,” which imagines what nature does when we humans are not looking; in his view, nature is its own lover, running an adoring hand over all its representatives (the trees, the rain), much as Whitman found joy in himself. And since the quickest way to this girl’s heart is through a well-executed Whitman reference, I found “Manhattan” to be especially compelling. Though Myers’ name-dropping could have come off as juvenile (poets addressing other poets often feels sophomoric), his swift transition into lines that invoke Whitman’s own without being blatantly Whitman-esque proves he has the chops to forge his own path without forgetting his roots. Myers manages a third moment of reference in “Fragments After the 51st Psalm,” when he writes, “How will I speak after you have spoken? / How will I speak after you have not?” The answer, I think, is that he has found a way.

Moving out of the realm of poets’ poetry, Myers takes a clear-eyed approach to personal history, whether his own or the speaker’s, as seen in the minutiae of “Genealogy”: “passed from bucket to bone-white / bowl to tin cup, / tasting of clover and of rock, / tasting of Oklahoma and, beyond that, / Ireland.” In other words, Myers is able to focus on the details your standard human being is likely to remember: not a panoramic view, but the earthy essence on one’s tongue, the beloved household items inherited through the generations. Yet he also acknowledges the possibility that some of us might not have such immediately discernible attachments, as when he writes, in “The Parting,” that “He cannot say in truth that this land / is his body-- / the slick red clay is not the flat of his thigh, / the muddy lake not the pool behind his iris-- / and yet the parting / was like the breaking / of one stone / into two.”

Myers’ specialty, though, seems to be ripping my heart out. “Terrapin,” “Rail Arrives in Rock Island, IL., Feb. 22, 1854,” “The Tribute Money,” and “Linguistics” each felt like a gut punch, such was their emotional impact. I was even moved to the edge of tears when I came to the final line of “For My Daughter”: “Every period leaves behind it a space for the coming word.” Not only has Myers made a wonderful statement about parenthood, but he has also--perhaps unwittingly--given all writers some words by which to live.

While Myers has these strengths, he does have one noticeable weakness: rhyme. His rhymed poems do not come off as well for me as his unrhymed ones, due in part to the weakness of his end-word choices. There are many instances of simplistic rhymes--fall/call, day/say, go/so, too/you--which can serve to deter readers who have seen these combinations repeated often.

The poet recovers when exploring traditional verse forms, however. I have nothing but respect for writers who are able to successfully construct sestinas, villanelles, and haiku, and Myers has managed to produce all three, in “Adults,” “The Writing Process,” and “Three Haiku.” That final piece is effective largely because each section is so similar to Myers’ generally compact structure, and the succinctness of the lines even hearkens back to the opening poem of the collection.

My favorite lines in all of Elegy for Trains are in “Mid-Winter: Clarksville, Arkansas.” Myers writes, “It is too cold now / for philosophy, too cold for consolation.” I enjoy them on a surface level because they remind me of the bitterly cold winters I faced as a child in the Midwest. But more than that, they stick with me because what the poet offers, in the end, is philosophy and consolation: the philosophy of creating well-written verse, the consolation of knowing that someone out in the world is capable of giving you a moment--or two, or ten--of catharsis.

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