Poets on the rails, Part 1

In April 2015, Ian Ferrier and 21 other poets hopped on a train across Canada as part of David Brydges' Poetrain project. What follows is the first dispatch in a three-part series on Ferrier's experience...
 
The first rhythm is the rhythm of the train, a swaying low in the belly, pockmarked by the staccato burst of sixteenth notes (taka taka taka taka tum) that are kicked up as we go over some indentation in the rail.
 
This is the poetry train – the brainchild of David Brydges, a man of such energy and enthusiasm that he has twice managed to convince a train company to carry a gaggle of poets across the country and then found sponsors to fund it.
 
There are 22 poets on board, and many of us are travelling into our own uncharted West.  Although I have been across Canada by road and air many times, I’ve never done it on the rails. At David’s request, I was contracted by VIA Rail to be part of their Artists-On-Board program, a brilliant piece of thinking that offers musicians and entertainers free rides across this country in exchange for performing on the trains on which they ride.
 
I don’t ever need a drummer.  The sound of the wheels is the rhythm that will be etched into all of us over the next 2000km. It is always there, and whenever one wants to access the experience of being on this train, it will just be a matter of summoning the ghost of that rhythm.
 
This is only the first hour of the journey and, already, I am three competing humans: the one who wants to look out the window and absorb the country; the one who wants to compose, perform and improvise, and the one who is so over-stimulated that he needs to sit in a quiet cabin chewing a guitar pick.
 
Performing, at least for me, is one of the few times when I fully focus, shutting out everything except this moment (including the amazing landscape, and the fact that I am rolling through it). So I will not see every prairie or every mountain and, often, I will be comatose in my cabin, trying to pull myself together for the next activity. At times like these, it would help if I were an extrovert and wanted love, crowds, noise and excitement. Since I am not, it is often hard for me to see or understand the voyage we are on. But it has ended, and it is still in my bones. It is this voyage I’m going to try to tell you about; the one where the sound of the train is at the bottom of everything you know.
 
The poetrain is like a ghost that carries the spirit of all of us. From the endless trainyards of Winnipeg, it rolls and rolls, out into sunset in the Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan. We are the audience rolling through, looking down on a stage to the south. On that stage is the river, rolling too, its motion a counterpoint from West to East, opposing our direction. I love these moments of relativity theory – waiting for a freight train to pass and feeling as if it is not the long train beside us but ourselves who are actually moving.
 
The Qu’Appelle Valley tells you just how much is defined by water on these prairies. All around it, the vegetation is lush and deep green, so beautiful at sunset it reminds me of the high mountain country around Pagosa Springs in Colorado, or of the Shenandoah Valley at sunset as Lucy and I rolled down the Blue Ridge Parkway on the oldest of all my motorbikes.
 
How rich and beautiful it must have looked to the settlers parched from their journeys across the prairie. How empty it is even now, where in the entire time I look out at that valley, I see only one person: a man with his shotgun cracked open, waiting for the geese to fly by on their way north. I hear from someone that it is the Goose Holiday further north. During the migration, everyone shuts down and goes out shooting for food.
 
As we fall into darkness, I am up in the skydome car – a huge bubble of windows looking out over the stainless steel roofs of the train cars.  Sheets of northern lights fill the sky to the right of where we sit. Looking from the glass-domed car down the darkened top of the train, the cars ripple from side to side, held in close formation, like belly dancers. As we pass each crossroads in the dark, the railroad signal lights glow from green to red, and the streak of colour reflects all the way down the tops of the cars. The cars are steel-finned, designed, I imagine, to deflect heat from the sun.  To me they are the gills of a silver hybrid animal, a snake glittering in the dark. Each bend shows us the length of the train and all the lit windows inhabited by our fellow passengers.
 
Each time I sleep, I wake up somewhere else.
 
Ian Ferrier performing on the train
First view of the Prairies
Mist on the blue morning Prairie
The Qu'Appelle Valley
The silver of the rails