Transit(ion) movement and stasis in Brian Bartlett's "All the train Trips"

Introduction

The first time I travelled on a train was also the first time I had been outside of the Maritimes. I remember the conductor announcing we had exited New Brunswick and entered Quebec, and I also remember looking out the window at that moment, half expecting to see some sort of noticeable physical change. Not the black line that divides provinces on maps, but perhaps a geographical landmark: a river, or ridge, or change in tree species. Maybe Quebec was a somewhat different hue than New Brunswick; I’d always imagined it as slightly bluer. But even if there had been some stark difference between the two spaces, I had no way of knowing where the division would be. The train conductor’s message moved through time at the same rate as the train, so I couldn’t be sure which word signified the split second of movement between the two provinces. Was it before he started the announcement or after he finished it? Maybe it happened right when he uttered the word “now,” or “entering,” or “Quebec.” Maybe he had perfectly practiced and timed his announcement so we would cross between the two provinces at the very moment he breathed the voiceless velar stop at the end of the last word. Maybe we had crossed the border five minutes ago and he just remembered to announce it now.

In the end, there were no noticeable differences between the spaces that Quebec and New Brunswick occupy. And even if there were, the setting that facilitated that crossing stayed static: blue patterned train seats, grey carpet, silver-rimmed windows. Trains are spaces that move through time and space, yet remain unchanged and static during that movement. They are, as critics Michel de Certeau and Ana Luz theorize, “in-between” or "other places;" they are neither the departure point or the arrival point, but somehow simultaneously encompass both (Egger 252-253). Or, perhaps, trains belong to Marc Augé’s “non-places,” spaces in which “nothing is fixed and stable and where time and place are fluid and hybrid and seem to follow their own rules" (Augé 83). In either interpretation, trains are theorized as distinct from that which surrounds them. Here, a binary between train and not-train is present, which brings along with it the binaries between movement and stasis, as well as self and other.

The aural and visual prosody of his poem not only mimics the chugga-chugga of a train moving across the tracks, but also the back-and-forth nature of the “in-between” space, one that is neither here nor there but has qualities of both.

In Brian Bartlett’s poem “All the Train Trips,” we can see the poetic creation of this transitional space that the above critics theorize. Bartlett’s narrative, much like his form, moves back and forth between specific memories and general insights. The aural and visual prosody of his poem not only mimics the chugga-chugga of a train moving across the tracks, but also the back-and-forth nature of the “in-between” space, one that is neither here nor there but has qualities of both. By exploring Bartlett’s poem in tangent with my own personal experiences, as well as the theories which surround both literal and literary train travel, I will examine how Bartlett creates a transitional space in his poem through the contrast between movement and stasis. Additionally, by moving back and forth between my own living experiences and the more static critical texts I have introduced, I hope to formally recreate this tension that underlies “All the Train Trips."

Form & Narrative

I must delve into the form of Bartlett’s poem first, because its striking noticeability demands no lesser spot. “All the Train Trips” is split into nine tercets, with each line of the stanza being further indented before the pattern is restarted in the next stanza. This prosody creates a sense of movement in the poem, but also a sense of stasis. Look at the first two stanzas, for example:

(lines 1-6)

The structure of Bartlett's poem, as exemplified by the two stanzas above, seems to formally reinforce "the swaying, the braking, [and] the shunting" that the speaker experiences during the train trip. We can see the swaying in the back-and-forth movement that happens when the structural pattern repeats itself. We can see the "shunting" in the further indentation of each line, which both pushes the text forward and separates it from the line preceding it. Finally, we can see the braking in the fact that the lines, although creating the feeling of movement through indentation, are always pushed back to be flush with the left margin when the next stanza starts and thus stopped from moving any significant distance. Here, the tension between movement and stasis in Bartlett's transitional space is actualized: while the structure of "All the Train Trips" seems to move horizontally across the page, this movement is constantly negated with each new stanza.

This tension is not only visible in the form of Bartlett's poem, but also its narrative structure. Rather than describe a single, linear train trip, Bartlett's narrative moves back and forth between a number of different train rides, as well as a more philosophical pondering of trains in general. We expect, given the structural movement of the poem, to reach the train’s destination by the poem’s end. However, the reader is still stuck in the train in the last stanza, unaware of what amount of distance they have travelled or what location they are in, or if they have travelled any distance at all from the first stanza:

(lines 25-27)

In fact, Bartlett's last stanza seems to intentionally reinforce the unclarity of the speaker's location more than any other. Bartlett's diction creates a feeling of isolation, but also of ambiguity: the woods are "anonymous," and the speaker's face is "vague." Much like Bartlett's structure, the assumptions we make about linear narrative movement are subverted by the poem's end: we, as readers, are less aware of our surroundings than ever before in the poem. In this sense, "All the Train Trips" seems to reinforce Augé's idea that trains are places in which "nothing is fixed and stable" and temporal and spatial movement "seem to follow their own rules" (83).

Orientation

I can relate to Augé's idea of instability on trains, but in a much more literal manner: sitting backwards on trains makes me nauseated. On a train trip from Amsterdam Centraal to Schiphol Airport, only about a half an hour in length, my partner (I choose not to use the more common term “boyfriend,” because the second part of that compound word certainly does not apply in this instance) insisted that I sit in a seat that faced the back rather than the front of the train, although the carriage we were seated in was almost entirely empty. He told me I should face my fears, a statement that relies on the faulty logic that my nausea was caused by fear (it wasn't). When we arrived at the airport train station, I paid one euro to throw up in the washroom.

We feel nauseated when seated backwards on trains due to the conflicting signals between the direction we’re oriented and the direction we’re moving. Moving forward and looking backward is something that is not only physically, but mentally unsettling. This contrast between position and movement lends itself to Luz’s “other place:” not only does it combine qualities of both the departure and arrival point, but it does so in a way that causes our perception of time and movement to be “juxtaposed, co-existent and layered together” (Egger 253). We can see this directional anomaly in Bartlett’s narrative structure. Given the theme and formal movement of the poem, it seems as though we should be moving forward. The speaker, however, begins by looking back: “All the train trips I made in those years, alone, / along one province-to-province, through-the-night / route” (Bartlett 1-2).

Here, Luz’s idea of the corridor space, or a space that is created between here and there that "poses limits to free movement," is especially apparent (Egger 253). Through the creation of the compound adjectives “province-to-province” and “through-the-night,” Barlett grammatically reproduces these restrictions to free movement. Words in compound adjectives, rather than being able to be rearranged and replaced like traditional adjectives, are locked into their ordered combinations through hyphens. These hyphens not only recreate Luz’s corridor space grammatically, but also visually: the way the hyphens connect the words together create a train-track-like image. Ultimately, Bartlett's poem does adhere to this nauseating orientation: we detect, or perhaps expect, forward, linear movement in the poem, microcosmically represented by the train-track compound adjectives. However, we are also aware that the speaker is looking back, not ahead: the first line of the poem, “all the train trips I made in those years, alone,” references past rather than future experiences.

"along one province-to-province . . .

through-the-night . . .

route" (2).

Perception & Reflection

Much like his narrative structure as a whole, we can see a tension between a linear perception of time and one that see moments as “juxtaposed, co-existent and layered together" in specific lines of Bartlett's poem (Egger 253). The fifth and sixth stanzas of "All the Train Trips" exemplify this concept:

(lines 14-18)

“Always” in the above stanza modifies the act of reading as continuous action that has happened or will happen multiple times. However, Bartlett continues the line by qualifying that the speaker will “always read/Lorca’s poems in the light of one winter night,” and, in the next stanza, that he will always "overlap Aksakov's memoirs / with one summer night." Here, the temporal infinity implied by the word “always” is condensed into a single, finite moment. In this instance, we can see hues of Augé’s non-space appearing: space, and especially time, are “fluid and hybrid and seem to follow their own rules.” However, that is not to say that the speaker’s space is does not have implications of identity, as Augé argues trains do not: poetry, both in the form of Bartlett’s poem and the internal poetry of Lorca read inside it, is almost always concerned with identity, whether is be of the speaker, poet, or reader.

I cannot claim to have read poetry on trains, as fitting as that comparison would be. Actually, I have not read any piece of literature on trains; reading, like facing backwards, gives me motion sickness. Sometimes I wonder why I enjoy trains so much when everything I do on them makes me want to turn inside out. Instead of reading Lorca's poems or Aksakov's memoirs, then, I watched all three films in the original Star Wars trilogy on various train trips between France and Germany. The line "I will always watch Star Wars in the light of one summer night," however, does not have the same poetic ring to it as Bartlett's version. In the case of either poetry or film, we can view consuming texts as a form of movement; they allow us to move from the static interior of the train and into a living, breathing world. Here, the tension between movement and stasis seems to extend to the tension between fiction and reality. But, much like Bartlett, I have more significant memories of the fictional media I consumed while on train rides than the real landscape zooming by outside my window. I have, like Bartlett, "forgotten the names of villages and towns / I knew only as crows know nests they fly over / on their way somewhere else" (19-21). On a train trip from Paris to Strasbourg I travelled through more than two dozen cities and towns, and yet I am more likely to remember specific shots from The Empire Strikes Back than even the name of one of those locales. Here, we can return to de Certeau's reading of trains: the separation of the traveller from the outside world through means of the train's interior creates a space in which dreams, rather than reality, "reign supreme" (de Certeau 113).

Perhaps Bartlett's speaker is reading Lorca's "Train Ride."

While we cannot be sure of what poem of Lorca’s the speaker is reading in Bartlett’s poem, the dreamer in me would like to believe it is “Train Ride.” Lorca's “Train Ride,” although using the same motif of train travel as "All the Train Trips," veers away from Bartlett’s poem in some respects. Lorca’s transitional space is very similar to de Certeau’s in the sense that it emphasizes dreaming and the reflection that comes with it; unlike “All the Train Trips,” where the motif of train travel is present throughout, Lorca’s poem only uses train travel in its first few lines as a catalyst for more philosophical thought. Interestingly, we can also see Lorca’s poem as a catalyst for philosophical thought in Bartlett’s poem: not necessarily internally for speaker, but certainly externally for the reader. This intertextual nod to Lorca exposes “All the Train Trips” not only as a poem about transitional space, but as a transitional space in and of itself; just like de Certeau's view of train trips, Bartlett’s poem induces outward and reflective thought on part of the reader through intertextuality.

Two years ago, I took an eight-hour night train from Naples to Sicily. Fortunately, unlike Bartlett’s speaker whose “coach seats never went / back far enough for [him] to sleep,” I had booked a sleeper cart (8-9). There is something about the back-and-forth movement of the train, “the swaying, the braking, the shunting,” that, rather than impedes sleep, actually induces it. I slept for nearly the entire eight hours. I found out the next day that in order to cross the Strait of Messina, the train had to board a ferry. I had known that there was no bridge connecting Italy and Sicily, but a train crossing by ferry seemed to me to be more plausible in the dreams I was having than what was actually happening during my slumber. Rather, it had felt I had fallen asleep and woken up in the same place, and only in the moment when I walked past the threshold of the train door did I travel the 400 miles between my departure and arrival point. De Certeau’s vision of trains as a space where “dreams reign supreme” seems to reach its logical extreme here: but rather than inducing philosophical reflection, my state of dreaming merely induced a mental stasis that made me unaware of the distance I was travelling.

Only in the moment when I walked past the threshold of the train door did I travel the 400 miles between the my departure and arrival point.

Conclusion

Ultimately, trains, as seen in my own personal experiences and Bartlett's "All the Train Trips," are places of transition; not only between movement and stasis, but also between self and other, here and there, and dreams and reality. By moving back and forth between my own living experiences and those that are confined to text recreates "the swaying, the braking, [and] the shunting" that defines both Bartlett's form and his narrative progression. Although I believe each critic provided a useful theoretical framework through which to view train trips, there are some points with which I cannot agree. Namely, Augé, while providing a compelling look at time and space during train travel, makes the assumption that trains "cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity." Bartlett seems to disprove all three of these claims in his intertextual references alone, which make train travel and "All the Train Trips" in general relational, historical and, due to Lorca's philosophical ponderings, concerned with identity. While I cannot claim to have the same degree of reflection that Bartlett or Lorca do when on trains, my various train trips have helped me understand that trains are not only a physical, but a mental place of transit(ion).

-D.

Works Cited

Credits:

Created with images by venturaartist - "underground carriage train" • Unsplash - "departure platform subway station platform" • SoulNibblerChina - "17-03-26L1003115" • kevisdope - "Tracks" • frankieleon - "down the line" • StockSnap - "train tracks railroad railway" • alubavin - "DSCF1300 subway reading" • wwward0 - "5781"

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