Reviewed By Andy Chen
- Omnidawn (2014)
- 56 pages
Ohio Railroads, C. S. Giscombe’s fifth book, is perhaps his most thoughtful—and vulnerable—exploration of home in a body of work already deeply concerned with place. The book traces rail lines through history and revolves around his home city of Dayton, Ohio. These revolutions grow wider and wilder as the book-length lyric essay unfolds, and before long, Giscombe’s Dayton amasses associations of family, race, and history, creating the kind of rich and complicated realm that every place of home is. The essay form is perfect for the book’s expository style while rendering its brilliantly lyrical moments all the more surprising. Moreover, the poet’s associative sensibility—which feels characteristic of the lyric mode—takes leaps made all the wilder by the ostensible stability of the prose form.
It all begins with a dream: the author envisions his mother’s death, “falling, indistinguishable from rain,” from a Dayton railroad bridge. We learn much later that this is not how she actually died—she died from an extended illness—yet the unshakable image from this recurrent dream compels the poet to visit the very spot the day after her death, driving right up to the tracks and stepping out of her ’84 Camry to overlook his home city.
From this opening note, the essay’s eight mostly prose sections cover far-flung territory. Ostensibly a catalog of Ohio’s network of railroads, the book takes up race, memory, language, and a history that includes the Wright Brothers, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Roswell, and every American war. For Giscombe, railroad history is a microcosm of American history. “The history of railroads is a history of mergers,” he writes, and throughout the book, it becomes clear he means more than mergers of rail lines and industries: also the merging of ideas, political treaties both struck and shirked, and especially the coming together of races. For Giscombe, this is true not only of Ohio, but his current home too: “Black history in the East Bay—as Berkeley and Oakland are known—is connected to railroad history.” Giscombe notes, for example, that by 1930, a third of the East Bay’s black laborers worked for the railroad or its partners, and black neighborhoods emanated geographically from the rail yards accordingly. At moments like this, Giscombe forges a nuanced relationship between history and geography, as if, concurrently and inseparably, history exists in space, and geography exists in time. Several images of maps appear in the text, and alongside them, Giscombe creates his own vivid maps through language by cataloging topographical features, railroads, and streets—along with, for instance, the history of Dayton’s first black mayor for whom a street was named. For Giscombe, even mapmaking as an act is indivisible from history.
The complex relationship between race, history, and trains has long interested Giscombe. In a 2008 interview, he remarks that “railroads divide and define cities” in a way that is “profoundly racial…hence the phrase, ‘wrong side of the tracks.’” Giscombe is himself a trained railroad engineer, a fact evident in the richness of his language and knowledge—for example, how applying the brakes in conductor lingo is known as “dumping the air” or what sorts of railroad crossings especially peeve engineers, like “the ones that came right on top of each other, following one another as points on a curve.” The rich technical language of railroad engineering, in this context, gives Giscombe’s prose lyricism and strangeness, defamiliarizing both the railroads and the histories they map.
Despite the book’s myriad concerns and wandering eye, we revisit the enigmatic opening moment again and again, and the entirety of Ohio Railroads, it seems, occurs within the meditative space of that one moment, born of a death and a dream. Even 2008, the year of Giscombe’s mother’s death, is referred to constantly, and the Dayton—and the America—of the book seems suspended in that year. The most salient exploration of the dream occurs in the book’s one brief outpouring of lineated poetry, which begins:
That I saw
death there as rain
on a RR bridge—
Why, we wonder, does he imagine his mother’s death this way? How can the dream serve as a response to the poem’s initial interrogative? What does the dream reveal about his relationship to Dayton? These questions suggest that home, with all the associations, memories, and energies any home has, is ultimately most at stake in Ohio Railroads. Later in the poem, he describes the bridge itself:
but it snakes
all across downtown
to the east end of childhood Dayton
the extent of which blurs
or has become so, exaggerated,
but with high cement sides,
all my life
in whose shadow
This concludes the poem, left unresolved and syntactically open, as these final lines fall within a parenthetical Giscombe never closes. Here, the railroad bridge becomes much more than physical structure: it looms impossibly tall in the poet’s imagination, a monument whereby time and space once again—“the east end of childhood Dayton”—become blurred together.
The poem’s formal departure also signals a psychological one: whereas the essayistic speaker of the rest of book seems knowledgeable and certain, here we have an uncertain speaker who creates the poem’s unresolved space full of the aforementioned questions—questions of home, death, and self. This uncertainty transforms the book’s prose sections: for all the intelligence and knowledge Giscombe exhibits, it is through his humanizing doubt and vulnerability that we trust him even more. Confronted with death and his own lack of understanding, he tells us he is ultimately not unlike a child, and because of this, we trust him and are willing to follow wherever he leads us. Where we emerge, amid an intricate map in which place, geography, and history propel one another, even something as quotidian as the distant sound of a train is made strange and new.
Andy Chen is a native of New Jersey. He holds an MFA in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis and is the recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. His poems are forthcoming in the Denver Quarterly and his reviews have appeared in Euphony. He currently lives in St. Louis.