In honor of Amtrak’s recent plans to create a writing residency in the context of inter-America train travel,
(thanks to writers Zach Seward and Jessica Gross, in cahoots with Amtrak’s social media reps. Check out thefull article here: http://www.thewire.com/culture/2014/02/inside-amtraks-absolutely-awesome-plan-give-free-rides-writers/358332/)
I am posting my own treasured testament to the pleasure and “conductivity” of writing on the rails. The 3 haibun below (haibun come to us from Japan and are a real traveler’s form – just think of Basho) come from the slew of notes I took during a 3-day Amtrak trip from New York to California. For myself and for many writers, the train is a prized limbic space, a vessel for the imagination. These poems display the American countryside as viewed through that lens.
Notes From the California Zephyr
The oceanic expanse of land outside my window is horizontal vertigo, threatening to swallow the islands of suburbia that pass by in a blink. Surely, for the people who live here, for those who tend the fields and travel the thin dirt roads, this land is familiar. But from my passing dreamer’s view, the wideness of it is primitive, a sense of existence before the confining geometry of cities, when we were at home amid the sweeping fields and forests.
how did it feel?
a simple hut
amid such exposure
Near Granby we hook up with the river and follow it down into the canyons. There are no roads here and the only other humans around are the river rafters with their “dubious behavior,” as the conductor warns, otherwise known as the “Colorado salute.” The train rides intimately up against the inner walls of the lower canyon so that the view is one from deep within a pocket of the earth–rugged burnt red against bright cornflower, with cumulus white moving in and out the corridor of sky. On some frequency beyond sound I hear the voice of slow, violent rock formations carving the earth as they frame the sky. I relax.
but oh the workers
who risked their lives
hammering down the rails
I would have let this place go by as a smudge of light brown were it not for the burnt red hues of rock now glowing like mahogany beneath a pink and purple sky, removing me from all notions of being in “my country.” Another planet, this land does not seem as though it could “belong” to anyone—it is even more wide open than the plains. The lowering sun blazes orange streaks and black shadows down across gray sandstone mesas, accentuating each crevice and fold of their bulbous, melted forms. Sage brush sags in the fading light. Distant buttes meet the sky. Utah—the painting goes by like the surface of Mars, or like that of the pure West—desolate, beautiful, and alive.
a stop sign