An introduction to C. S. Giscombe
What follows is an introduction to C. S. Giscombe’s reading at the University of Georgia on Thursday, November 13, 2014. Sponsored by the Ballew Lecture Fund in the Department of English and the Creative Writing Program, the event was held at eight p.m. in the Lab Room at Ciné, 234 West Hancock Avenue, in Athens, Georgia.Earlier that afternoon, Giscombe had delivered a public talk on Muddy Waters, trains, and metaphor.
“When does railroad sense begin?” C. S. Giscombe asks in his latest book, Ohio Railroads, a long poem in prose, reprinted railway maps, and a singular, oneiric burst of lyric. By his own account, railroad sense began for him as a child in Dayton, Ohio, sitting in the Wilkes and Worth Barbershop and watching locomotives cross Mound Street, two blocks south. Later he’d work as an engineer and approach that very same crossing. Railroad sense in his writing started two decades ago. The opening suite, or “setting,” of his first poetry book, Here, is titled “Look Ahead — Look South,” after the Southern Railway Co. slogan. That poem, in which he admits “my bad attitude toward the pastoral,” toggles between 1962 and the recent past, centering on February 1978, when he flew down south to attend his grandmother’s funeral; and in fact Ohio Railroads begins exactly thirty years later, with the death of the author’s mother in August ’08. And railroad sense had blurred any would-be border between life and work by the time of Giscombe’s third volume, Prairie Style, whose acknowledgments, after reporting that the writing was drafted in Pennsylvania, Scotland, Nova Scotia, and California, conclude, “Portions of this book were written on Amtrak.”
Rooted along the bottom of the page like a TV ticker, the prose poems of Prairie Style participate in the repetitious, geophysical flatness of our inland Midwest; in the low-toned, humble hum of African-American song; in the gutterspeak and carnal exchange of sex, or the crock of cracking a joke; and in the dwellings of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, scaled down for human habitation. Similarly, the associative prose of Ohio Railroads — whose eight sections, like the various downtown Dayton crossings, are separate causeways as well as a “single bridge” — diagrams the city’s network of railroad lines, to meditate on the multilayered history — national, local, familial, and, above all, racial — of Giscombe’s childhood and teenage town. The first black person arrived in 1798, and African Americans came in far greater number three decades later. In between, because the Ohio constitution forbade slavery, others were brought as “indentured servants.” By 1900 the black population was 3,500, and from the ’40s through the ’70s blacks lived on the West Side, west of the Great Miami River. Sixteen miles away, Xenia had always had a significant black population.
The towns were connected by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, later known as Penn Central, eventually run by the government as Conrail. Ohio Railroads is filled with such mergers, obsolescence, and outright disappearances. Founder Jonathan Dayton never set foot in the town. Another blind spot is that Giscombe’s mother was never recognized as black by her fellow graduate students in education, white folks who solicited her help in discriminating against blacks in the dining hall. Yet a third erasure: the two black colleges just outside Xenia, Central State, and Wilberforce, were located in a designated “unincorporated place.”
The Norfolk Southern, New York Central, National Limited: no sooner does the poem anatomize the rhizomic trains and trusses that crosshatch Dayton, however, than its attentions wander to other modes of transport. Applying the emergency brakes on a train, Giscombe explains, was called “dumping the air,” and indeed the poem can’t help thinking about air travel. The Pennsylvania’s famous passenger train linking New York to St. Louis, he reminds us, was called the Spirit of St. Louis, after Charles Lindbergh’s plane. More weirdly, the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is rumored to house dead aliens with large heads and other galactic debris from a 1947 flying saucer crash. As a young man, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar worked in the Callahan Building downtown as an elevator operator — or, as the job was dubbed, an “indoor aviator.”
In Giscombe’s peripatetic telling, the history of air travel is, in turn, bound up with bicycling. Dunbar’s mother did laundry for whites in Dayton, including the “air pioneer” family the Wrights, and her son was friendly in high school with Orville — who, along with his brother Wilbur, owned a bunch of bike shops on West Third. By the 1960s, Giscombe notes, the railway tracks from Xenia north to Yellow Springs, known as “the most miscegenated place in America,” were used infrequently at best. That nine-mile stretch is now a bike trail — and also a sort of hyperlink, if you will, to two of Giscombe’s earlier books, namely, the poetry volume Giscome Road and its companion memoir, Into and Out of Dislocation. Together they record the poet’s travels — thousands of miles — back and forth from the US to Canada, in search of a possible nineteenth-century ancestor from Jamaica, John Robert Giscome — no “b” — who settled in British Columbia. Despite documents, maps, and genealogies, however, little in this pair of projective volumes remains settled: the memoir features a chapter called “Trains, Airplanes” and another titled “A Natural History of Cycling,” in which Giscombe details the myriad bikes he’s owned, from the three-speed Robin Hood he rode at twenty, living in Albany, through the orange Gitane he used to scale mountains around Seattle in his thirties, to the two machines he had at the time of writing, a Raleigh touring bike with Campy components and a lightweight, blue Gitane he found in a trailer outside Peoria — his daughter called it his sports car.
Ohio Railroads is equally traversed by autos, buses, trolley cars. By 1910, the near West Side, where the Wright family lived, was a “streetcar suburb.” Their house was eventually moved to a museum bearing the name of Henry Ford. The Soap Box Derby raced down Germantown Hill, where the train crossing was protected by flashing lights. At the North Gettysburg Street crossing, drivers would sometimes overestimate the speed of their cars while underestimating the trains, awarding the intersection the moniker “Old Bloody Gettysburg.” In 2008, Giscombe’s parents had two cars, including the Camry he drove to the railroad bridge on East Third Street the day after his mother’s death. He’d been here before in a dream, the one whose elastic, elegiac logic governs the whole of this poem. This time Giscombe did not drive onto the tracks, as he had in the dream, but waited on the quai to see a mixed freight led by two CSX locomotives. “I felt its presence in the air before I heard it,” he says, “though the difference is rather fine.”
This is partly what he means by railroad sense: a premonition, arriving as if out of nowhere. Or an intuition just this side of evidence — before the proof pulls into the station. But if it’s “sourceless,” as Giscombe proposes, railroad sense implies both a future and destination, more precisely, “a degree of inevitability in which location is a prime factor.” In counterpoint to its obsessions with movement, then, and what Giscombe refers to, across his work, as the “inbetween,” a stubborn engagement with specific localities anchors Ohio Railroads. Giscombe is at least as much a hedgehog as he is a tracking, trekking, trickster Mistah Fox, and railroad sense may well begin, he muses, with a train in the street like an elephant at large, charged “with the tang of slowness.” His good railroad sense — one part “elephant-style,” one part derailleur — has brought him back to the South tonight, where, as he put it early on, “ensconced in Dixie I am piss elegance.” Please join me in welcoming C. S. Giscombe back to Athens.