I take trains from time to time, from California to Michigan, San Diego to San Francisco, stopping between station to breathe different air and to have a different state's sun shine on my skin. You go on with the journey, studying the passing terrain from your seat, making note of ordinary things that seem extraordinary if only because you're passing through. You wonder about it all as the towns, the old farm machinery, the faded barn sides and dilapidated factories scoot past your invasive gaze: who lives here? I like this poem because Soto appreciates the wandering and the wondering about people and things in their places.
Who Will Know Us?
by Gary Soto
(for Jaroslav Seifert)
It is cold, bitter as a penny.
I'm on a train, rocking toward the cemetery
To visit the dead who now
Breathe through the grass, through me,
Through relatives who will come
And ask, Where are you?
Cold. The train with its cargo
Of icy coal, the conductor
With his loose buttons like heads of crucified saints,
His mad puncher biting zeros through tickets.
The window that looks onto its slate of old snow.
Cows. The barbed fences throat-deep in white.
Farm houses dark, one wagon
With a shivering horse.
This is my country, white with no words,
House of silence, horse that won't budge
To cast a new shadow. Fence posts
That are the people, spotted cows the machinery
That feed Officials. I have nothing
Good to say. I love Paris
And write, "Long Live Paris!"
I love Athens and write,
"The great book is still in her lap."
Bats have intrigued me,
The pink vein in a lilac.
I've longed to open an umbrella
In an English rain, smoke
And not give myself away,
Drink and call a friend across the room,
Stomp my feet at the smallest joke.
But this is my country.
I walk a lot, sleep.
I eat in my room, read in my room,
And make up women in my head —
Nostalgia, the cigarette lighter from before the war,
Beauty, tears that flow inward to feed its roots.
The train. Red coal of evil.
We are its passengers, the old and young alike.
Who will know us when we breathe through the grass?
Unfinished thoughts is the point of the poem , and unfinished thoughts, the ones that come in a stream , one after another, with hardly a seam showing between responsive notion to the next, is one of the attractions of train travel . Soto gets this flow rather well, and in someway he offers us a version of John Ashbery might read like if Ashbery weren't so reticent to provide a location , place in his work.
Like Ashbery, there is the thing that passes by at a speed that allows one to recognize it and the context it resides in, there is the start of thought processes that might attempt to abstract from the thing seen, but then there is interruption with the motion, the new thing that passes by the observer's gaze; ideas overlap, bleed into one another, there is an a fascinating language forming from textured details and the emotive qualities one quickly draws from them. It is a kind of music one creates for oneself, the contrasts in things, shapes, forms, the striking differences in the qualifiers one quickly deploys to get the detail right. Unlike Ashbery, though, Soto's poem doesn't abandon us at the station, and he provides a graspable sense of melancholy under the intoxication of streaming perception; it's not just "who are these people" but also, for the citizens of the places these tracks pass through (or pass through no longer) it's a wondering about who remember them when the last house goes dark and the school no longer teems of a new generation.
Poetry is a self conscious medium , in any case, it's an intense examination of one's responses to what life draws them through; anyway, I don't see Soto as being so self-conscious as to weigh down the poem in self-doubting murk. He doesn't once, for example, mention the fact that he's a poet, nor ponder at all poetry's inability to get at the essence of things and situations in themselves. Instead he's like the rest of us in the trenches, lost in thought, engaged with the meaning of things in ways that catch the drift of perfectly arrived ellipsis. It's a well turned work, quite modest in proportion to the issues it flirts with, quite moving as a reminder that beauty, joy, sadness are all things we can experience in a single moment.