Poets on the rails, Part 2

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 second dispatch in a three-part series on Ferrier's experience...

Somewhere in Saskatchewan, I dreamt I was lying in my sleeping cabin with a friend. The train had stopped and she was sitting up, looking out the window. “There’s a man out there” she said. I sat up and, there, among the rusted cars and debris that clutter all railway lines, a man stood looking at the train.  Not a young man, not an old one either. Looking straight at me. Maybe this is a detached self, I think. The me who never was on this train, never went anywhere, was born, lived and is now dying, bit by bit, in this nameless town.

 
For a second, we face each other; he, perhaps, is searching for signs of life at this late hour.  Maybe by accident, he had once snuck a look into a darkened window and seen someone beautiful staring back at him – a woman he might have loved had she ever stopped in his empty, sleepy town. So maybe he goes down there every night now.
 
There is nothing beautiful about me, especially at this time of night. I look as haunted as he does. His eyes meet mine, then tumble downward.
 
There is a lurch, and I wake up. The train is moving, slowly moving forward, and there is no person, no town, no woman beside me, nothing but the wheels rolling beneath me in the sleeping night. I wondered whether I am hallucinating the ghost of past beauty, like the man standing in that town.
 
*                      *                      *
 
The train waited often, on a siding in the middle of nowhere. One feels first the silence, and then – as the huge freights fire by, car after stacked car, clacking and rumbling for miles – the servitude to commercial freight. Some freights would take half an hour to pass by, millions of board feet of lumber and barrels of oil and all of it thundering east. How to measure a few passengers against all that timber and oil?  We always come up short, and so we wait.
 
I never become impatient. It just means we will be out here longer, and everything is going by so fast that I want to be out here longer. Or forever, or whatever length of time (short of forever) it will take to understand and process all this transience and beauty. In spare moments, I read The National Dreamand The Last Spike, both histories of the railroad I’m riding.
 
In the earliest hours of the morning, I open my eyes and the window is filled with an eerie, washed-out blue light. With my head still on the pillow, the landscape appears like a TV turned on its side. Along the wire fence that follows the railway line, the grass has not been harvested since the beginning of winter, and with the snow gone and the frost of early morning, each blade glitters grey with a mix of moisture and ice. Grey as the frozen strands of an old man’s beard. The prairie is the pale yellow of cut straw, and clouds of mist surround every grove of bushes or trees. These clouds are like the flowing trains of white dresses. 
 
Each night as I sleep, the sound of the moving cars inhabits my whole body. I will play this rhythm to an audience the next night, the bottom rhythm always the train moving through the landscape; the next rhythm, the beauty of what flashes past our windows. The third rhythm is the eyes of the passengers who watch me play.
 
The train is now four hours late and, to assuage and reward the patience of the passengers, they are serving brunch on white tablecloths in the dining car. The food is uniformly delicious. The sheer number of food choices is insane. This is so much better than airline food…I wonder why anyone would ever choose to travel any other way.  After each course appears, I compare with my neighbours, and there is no clear winner – only the desire to eat everything this chef makes, from scallops wrapped in shrimp to lamb chops in balsamic reduction. According to one of the poets, the vegetarian meal was the best thing she has ever eaten.  And, all the while, as our forks click on china and the servers pace back and forth with more coffee, we are swaying and rumbling down the prairie. 
 
As we enter the foothills and head into Jasper Park, one bear sits on his hind legs, staring straight at us. The rest of the animals—the deer and elk and coyotes—pay us hardly any mind. There are mountain sheep on the top of the hill. Two coyotes converse about a rabbit. All the mountains are soaked in mist, like in the paintings of those crazy Zen monks who go to live eleven years in the wilderness and come back with 340 poems and brush drawings for each.   The craziest part is that, the higher we go, the more it starts to snow. All the animals we see are silhouettes against the whitest of white backgrounds.
 
This is where I get off the train and stand on the street in Jasper attempting takeoff. This is where I buy the 10-postcard pack of the Rockies’ most beautiful sights and then, one by one, realize I have seen and been to and lived near almost all of them, except for the face of a grizzly bear staring straight back at me from six feet away.
 
As we tear through the mountains, I am playing my second concert of the day.  Its rhythm section is the sound of the train rumbling taka taka taka taka tum as the wheels roll over another 10 meters of rail, and the windows fog with rain. The sound of the guitar fills the windowed caboose, last car on the train. Outside, the mountains begin to cluster together into huge white landscapes of even more amazing mountains.
 
I have written about trains many times before – some of my best work I had thought – but there is nothing to compare with these moments. How often does a poet get to sit in the dark, looking up through the curve of the dome car windows at a sky filled with the northern lights? It all seems so impossible. I don’t even bother to think how fantastic it is. Instead, I sit watching the top of the train glow green and red and silver in the light of the signal lamps beside the crossings up ahead.
 

Down below, I can hear half dozen poets putting a hilarity-filled dent in the well-lit, well-stocked bar. I wonder, should I tell them about the northern lights? After all they are poets…but they are not leaving the bar anytime soon, and so it is a long time in the dark before I decide that, perhaps, I should let them in on this amazing secret, that the whole northern sky is sheets of ghostly white and green…

Poets on the rails, Part 2
Poets on the rails, Part 2
Poets on the rails, Part 2