Poetry Read-Through: “A Journey” by Edward Field

15 Nov

A Journey  by Edward Field was the poem I was reading on my plane trip from South Carolina to Portland on my way towards a better life.  Charmingly, a pair of old phone cards fell out of the book reminding me just how many years ago it was, and also how transient I really was at that time.  I was leaving for a new city I had never even seen, moving in with someone I didn’t really know, everything all new and scary–I don’t know if I could do it again, but I’m glad I did.

Anyway, down to poetry.  In A Journey a man takes a trip from an old place to a new place by train and something opens up within him.   Very simple, right?  Ahhh, but that’s just what’s going on in general, let’s dip into the specifics.

The first three stanzas are about “his” (we never get a name) leaving.  It could be a young man moving away for the first time, it might not, though the indications that he’s at the beginning of things hint that it might be a younger man.  He awakes and he knows this is the day he is leaving.  Think about that day–maybe he circled it on his calendar in red–maybe he made an x on each day leading up to the leaving day.  Perhaps he’s sleeping in a mostly empty room because his stuff is all packed up.  Perhaps he has his suitcase all ready by his door.  The poem doesn’t say these things, and your interpretation could definitely be different, but it’s important to get an image–while the words lead you in poems, it’s up to you to contextualize them.

“When he woke up that morning everything was different.”  A very simple sentence, but since we know it’s a leaving day, wouldn’t that make the day automatically different?  Wouldn’t he notice things more?  Have more moments of just seeing how the light came in through the windows or shadows coming through the trees?  When you know that these are the last moments before a change, an ending, a sort of heightened awareness of everything?    On this “bright spring day” where “he did not realize it exactly” but he “enjoyed it.”  A sort of zen-like state–not really thinking, just experiencing.

On his way to the railroad station he “passes magnolia trees with dying flowers like old socks.”  Since I’ve lived in the south I know very well that those trees smell like old socks by the way–the poem does not explicitly state this, but the trees pretty much symbolize his relationship with this place–it is dying to him, it is turning to a memory from a living place.

“It was a long time since he breathed so simply.”  Dying old-sock trees aside, breathing simply–to me–means, noticing the breath, noticing the smells.  I bet you when he lived in this place, going from spot to spot his mind was usually on other things, he was doing more than simply walking and breathing.

The next stanza has him tearing up, which “feels good” but he holds back the tears because “men didn’t walk around crying in that town.”     So that line tells us that he cares about fitting in with the other men in this town, and men don’t cry.  We also know that he would like to cry.  Apparently that town is a place where he feels considerable pressure to conform.  It could be somewhere he grew up (I notice that people feel more pressure to conform in their hometowns than if they move somewhere else).  Also, pressure to conform also could explain why it’s been awhile since he breathed simply, conforming requires constant self-monitoring, a self-consciousness that doesn’t let you do anything simply.

Notice the amount of freedom he has by leaving–and he hasn’t even left yet.

He waits at the platform–he’s  nervous–the train is late.  He “recited the alphabet to keep hold.”   I can totally relate to that, waiting tension–he’s banking on moving forward, of leaving, and is worried that it won’t happen, that something will take it away.  The alphabet is his way of distracting himself from those catastrophizing thoughts.

But it comes, and the train just makes it’s “usual stops” with people “coming and going, telephone poles passing.”   I take this stanza to be what he’s paying attention to–the world’s turning normally–things are just happening as usual–despite his tension.

“He hid his head behind a newspaper/No longer able to hold back the sobs, and willed his eyes,/To follow the rational weavings of the seat fabric.”I don’t think his sobbing is a terrible thing.  I don’t think it’s mourning, but it’s a release (we’ll find this later), an expression, maybe for the first time as an adult, of emotion.  Because he’s leaving the town where men don’t cry.  He’s still hiding, but notice that though he covers his face (it’s new to him) we don’t get the sense that anybody else is seeing his actions as unusual.  As for focusing on the weaving–oh I have done that, when I’ve really sobbed, and I’ve been in public, the thing I do is try to point my attention at one detail, and just pay attention to it.  Seat fabric, or a droplet going down a car window, something external and neutral.  Again, I think it’s for grounding.  There is an orderly world out there, whatever feelings are going on right now.

“He didn’t do anything violent as he had imagined./He cried for a long time, but when he finally quieted down/a place in him that had been closed like a fist was open.”

So he imagined violence.  The fear of emotion, the control–yes it’s scary when the floodgates open, since it’s the first time he had done this, he didn’t know what was going to happen–though it’s interesting that he had imagined it.  How could he have known, in the town where men did not cry?  Maybe there was a good reason.  Maybe they would have been violent.  I don’t think so, but from his point of view, how could he have known any different.  The thing is, by not crying, by not letting emotion out, he remains closed up.  Being closed up means that other people, and the rest of the world, will be always closed off for you, because you cannot touch them.  It’s also interesting that this man, he did not leave home to escape–he left home to be able to cry.

At the end of the ride–I’m thinking it’s the very last stop, but it could just be the end of his ride–he gets off the train.  “And through the streets and in all the places he lived in later on/He walked, himself at last, a man among men,/with such radiance that everyone looked up and wondered.”    Now personally I find that last line a little bit over the top.  I mean EVERYONE looked up and wondered?  It’s like he turned to Jesus in the last line suddenly.  (Especially the looking up, like he was floating in the air or something.)  But other people quite like this line, and I don’t really want to be a spoilsport.  Poetry isn’t meant to be literal–ok ok.  But I like the rest, how he was a man among men–that crying made him be not only equals, but also part of a community (keep in mind, in his old town, we don’t see a soul–nobody is sending him off.)  The radiance is in being open–emotions flow through him rather than getting dammed up–others can access him, it also makes a sort of resonant person–when the feelings are right there, it’s easier to listen.

Yes, I read this poem on my plane trip here.  I marvel at the bravery of people going into unknown places with no leads, no plans, just a new life they want, and they figure out how to make it work for them.  Personally, I don’t trust my ability to quickly form connections enough to do that experiment again, but I suspect that doing the blank-slate-move would be good for me, if I were brave enough to do it.

We only have a few such transitions in our lives like that, and some people have none at all.  But I wonder, with each move–whether it be in a space or a new relationship, do we purge the things we held back in the last one?  There’s something about weeping and being open and honest like that which is so fundamentally healthy, and so fundamentally difficult to do at the same time.  I mean I’m not the most masculine man in the world, but at the same time, crying is hard for me to do–not because I’m afraid of it, but it’s hard to do naturally I guess.

This poem has less of a specific experience, and more of a universal one.  I absolutely love it–it reminds me that transitions always seem harder than they are, that transitions are natural, and we all need to take that train trip now and then.

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