Elegy for Trains
Village Books Press
ISBN Number: 978-0-9818680-6-6
Over the last quarter century, poetry has done some rather public soul . Poets and critics alike have spilled gallons of ink (both actual and virtual) on whether poetry does—or can—still matter and why. Naysayers point out the impact of pop-culture and the plight of the literary small presses, the journals of which often have a circulation only roughly equal to the number of contributors (who receive free copies) plus the few subscribers (frequently institutional or city libraries) it supplies. Optimists quote statistics of booming enrollment in creative writing programs and hold up the internet “e-zine” as a burgeoning literary forum.
But if the subject of this review, poet Benjamin Myers, is correct when he says “…all theories of poetry are really theories of how body meets spirit in the written and/or spoken word,” the debate above is moot. As spiritual beings, humans will always seek to harness a sort of verbal nuclear-power, fusing usage with meaning in a way that evokes far more than the words employed express on their own. Poetry is part of who we are.
For Christians, this is especially true. First, our God has expressed a significant amount of His revelation in poetic form, and, while this is more true of the Old Testament than the New, the epistles do contain snippets of early church hymns, as well as (sometimes extended) prose use of poetic device (e.g. II Cor. 4:6-10). Our hymnody, furthermore, is a trove of poetic treasure. Add to this the work of our devotional poets—Herbert, Rossetti, Bradstreet, Taylor, as well as others—and we must conclude that the history of Christianity is saturated in poetry.
But what about the present? Yes, there seems to be a renewed interest in producing quality hymn texts, but is anyone still writing poetry that is both Christian and not necessarily intended to be sung? What is the current state of the Christian imagination? While these questions are likely too large to answer in this brief space, we may begin an attempt to take the lay of the land by examining Benjamin Myers’ first book of poems, Elegy for Trains (Village Books Press, 2010).
The author blurb at the end of this 85 page volume informs us that Mr. Myers “lives in Chandler, Oklahoma and is an associate professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He has published essays on topics in poetry ranging from the Renaissance verse of Edmund Spenser to the Modern experiments of John Ashberry.”
While this may seem mundane and straightforward information, it does provide an illuminating silhouette of Myers’ work itself. The poems of the Oklahoma native are filled with imagery of the American plains, yet, likely due to his wide reading, never feel restrictively colloquial. As a result, the “men on corners/who call with the death voice/of the owl/and the bony eye of cigarettes” in his poem “Manhattan” might well connect with Myers’ verse as easily as the “men long and thin like the late afternoon” that populate the “slant of hard Oklahoma hill” in “Ancestors” (which you can hear Myers read here).
In addition to this inter-regional congeniality, Myers further broadens his potential appeal by interacting with literature from several centuries—various Biblical authors as well as Virgil, Shakespeare (he includes not one, but three poems in the voice of Hamlet’s Polonius!), Whitman, and Pound. Perhaps most astonishingly (if I read him correctly), Myers echoes a line from Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” while dialoging with King David of Israel’s Psalm 51.
Myers has arranged Elegy in three sections, each named for a poem it contains. The first section, Genealogy, is almost entirely composed of free verse poems, most about a page long or shorter. The latter two sections, Polonius and A Common Grace, indicate, however, the author has “earned” this freedom with the inclusion of many of the more frequently employed forms. While his favorite seems to be the sonnet (he scatters half a dozen through the book, one of them employing 16 lines à la Robert Lowell rather than the usual 14), Myers also makes use of the sestina, the villanelle, and even a modified ghazal.
More interesting, perhaps, are the forms which Myers either invents or borrows from less well-known sources, as in the Hardy-esque “The Pawnshop.”
I feel for sale myself in there,
with the eye of the crippled TV
sitting obesely on its chair
staring at me.
Although completely conversational in feel, Myers abides by the strictures indicated by the first stanza throughout the poem, maintaining the three lines of (more or less) iambic tetrameter plus one of dimeter, with an abab scheme of both perfect and approximate rhyme. This form, set against the informal diction, helps guide the poem from the general seediness of the first stanza to the wryly macabre judgment of the final.
The balding man behind the glass,
knows his dark craft, like a canting;
he throws the bones of my thin past,
finds them wanting.
If Myers makes able use of form in “Pawnshop,” the title poem, “Elegy for Trains,” is masterful in blending both fixed and free form. The first section of the poem is halting free verse, representing a locomotive inching into motion from dead stop. The second, third, and fourth section settle into a stalwart iambic chug, ordered almost entirely in rhymed quatrains. The fifth and final section is a self-contained sonnet, the final rhyming couplet of which brings the poem “into the station.”
What strange angel your iron-stiff sides will seem
As passing on now, rolling, you are redeemed.
Myers has not, however, used this form as a mere representation of his subject, but allows it to function metaphorically as well. Just as the train pictures the redemption of creation, so Myers gradually moves his form from chaos to the ultimate in poetic order.
“Elegy for Trains” also gives the reader examples of some of Myers’ better use of imagery and allusion.
Your tracks lie now with cattle bones,
grown brittle in the balding grass,
so like your length all things must pass
into the silent yard of stones.
Here, against a landscape of abandoned railways and the bleached bones of dead livestock, Myers sounds the well-known plea of saints from both Testaments in place of a train whistle. The result is an exquisite evocation of yearning.
Myers is not a devotional poet. Several of his poems could have been written by someone who was not a Christian, and some of the biblical imagery is included merely to serve the point of a poem that isn’t really religious. This is not a negative per se, but something of which potential readers might wish to be aware.
Elegy for Trains is, as a whole, and like many other books of poetry, largely able with a few standout efforts and a couple of duds, but if Myers stumbles in any area, it may be in consistently engaging the imagination in a way that significantly enlarges the reader’s perception and understanding (which, admittedly, is asking a lot). Many of these poems, while capably executed and enjoyable, are, individual images or turns of phrase notwithstanding, quickly forgotten.
The title poem is a notable exception. There are others, including my favorite of the collection, “Jonah and Pinocchio.” Here Myers, again, expertly taps into our common longing for redemption, transforming the embarrassment a young child feels upon confusing two stories involving whales into a vision of our hope in Christ.
And who’s to say I wasn’t right . . .
that after this life’s long childhood of wood,
I could awake some clear morning
where the waves wash over the sand
to find I have become a real boy.
Benjamin Myers’ Elegy for Trains may not finally confirm the healthy condition of poetry, secular or Christian, but it leaves open hopeful possibilities.