A crack in the window is a crack in the air
or on the near horizon the signs say
all day it will rain and we think how stepping
out the rain will smarten against us.
Framed in our glass moments we feel
the wind in the trees is stuck in its ways.
Note how the Himalayan balsam climbs
the stream-valleys past ancient coppices.
Sleep, birds, while you can: from another city’s
hospital, past the mosque, buses depart
from the finger’s tip. Travel gives no fixity.
The eye in the mirror is not me,
this is the form reflected, draped in desires
as the arm of a crane wheels compass-like:
to whom will it point, it seeks a north
of experience, a sleep of metal and glass.
Today just a little more light
to see at least the sun’s downfall and how
the seams of half-flooded fields part
—in October the trees
had not nakedly exposed
their inner nature, the inner trees of ivy, ecorché
tractor-tracks, last autumn’s black-sheathed bales
If I do not choose
to sleep, sleep will come upon me.
The pylons lead away
towards the down-regions of cloud.
A residential area, a park, inside the park
a playground, standing alone in
the playground in a bright coat, a child.
Suddenly everyone on the train is sneezing
energetically and saying sorry and bless.
Mist clings to the valley floor. Dawn’s
lightshow of contrails. The train is hard
and pointed, it does not drift, but there are
points of drift in a journey:
down from the station steps
unless there is an immediate train, people drift,
the woman in that dress, weeks pregnant,
has an insect bite on her inside thigh. Then
the sun is X-raying the trees,
flaming the windows.
The mist in the valley is lifted tissue-
wrap, and under it is the same mass to which
light gives shape. When fields turn
to that stretch of water,
steepled horizons lead back past
clots of warmth to detailed clouds.
The man in front looks from behind
like someone I know. He’s deleting
emails, his screen an outgoing tide.
Opposite me, a woman Os her mouth,
applies new eyelashes. There are places
only ever regarded in passing
as these willows trailing their reflections
in the stream by a siding, backs of houses, fly-
tips, the dogwalkers and children draining
from the park with the last light. Since
shadow is never empty we sit in
the train in the dark, to the lights of a receding
city, stabs of colours too rapid to process.
Further into the film we come again to
some soft moment, a forest in flush
a word on glass feet, looking for a home.
It rained so hard that people stood
from their desks and clustered under
the lighwell, looking up,
but when it’s time to go, minutes later,
there’s only a whisper in the storm drain,
minted puddles to cycle through, past
the heavy-natured cars
it is the fineness of the day
on the opposite bank the cows reach
the overhanging alders. The chambers
of their hearts open, the Thames
urges into them. I ding three
times for the blind corner, stand to
pedal hard for the short steep corner, and
stoop to clear the tunnel.
At no point do I feel I am free.
I drove past so many houses to get to yours
and was each house I passed unique
piled perhaps with permutations of books
the years had shoved on to the shelves.
Hard to know without opening each door,
which would be breaking the law of
possession, or several tenths of it, I
thought, as I passed so many houses.
Weeks are birds landing on a playing-field.
In their cars the workers learn by radio
of their fate: they make gestures like those of
men leaping from high windows. A horse
across a field counters their argument
as the trumpets of the living sicken
over the hedges. The sun looks hard then
moves through time as if travelling
over long waters.
The blebs of rain point
a direction home
and emptying car-lots sing out in metre:
nothing is as written as tomorrow.
A low sun is almost pouring in, and out
past us is our design, to retrieve home
in steps, station after station. I’m
facing a four-year old with his parents,
pointing to the tracks, asking
between hacks of a cough. When I next
look up, it’s dark, the family
gone. Commuters fill the seats.
A man manipulates two phones.
No one sees the outstretched moon
or shifts their feet among the wrappers.
The multi-storey’s up-ramp, lit
from inside, a shell. Over the great
territories of derived language
the aim of science shudders
against our shoulders, fields settle in
their mirrors, words unform, lose
uniform. The rivers weep slowly
towards their wounds.
The drunks board, the mood lifts,
the sober dissemble slightly, calculate
a demeanour. The train hums to itself
the words to an anthem that can’t
be said. Lullaby of the parallels,
the subtexts as if I required of
the world a single thing then the train
windows blow open, and it
is still January, I’m facing
a bearded man who is also writing.
He has a larger notebook, foolscap,
on his knees, pages folded transversely,
but actually now I look again he’s
on his phone. A bedding down of screens
churning through the black and now
I’m the only one on the carriage,
a light streaks past and I feel
the slow terrible slowing then
a supermarket, lit but closed
and the impression of a station
where some people stand immobile,
facing away, waiting for the down train.
I write on the train, once from 6.06, when I leave my home in London, until 7.22 (or so), when I arrive in Oxford, where I work. And then the same in reverse, except that I also often sleep on the way home as well. Not every working day (sometimes I work from home), and with interruptions for making a change at Slough, and so on. Always on paper, either in an unlined school-style notebook, or on printouts of poems I want to work on. I prefer having a row to myself, but I can write with someone sitting by my side, able to look at my page, or even standing, when the train is so crowded I am not worried I might fall over since there is no space to fall.
My journey follows the course of the river Thames and passes through large towns and broad valleys, with views of distant hills and close fields, power stations, industrial areas, and, most of all, houses and office-blocks. For four months of the year I see none of this since I am travelling in the dark. For four months the whole journey both ways is in full sunlight. The other months are the transitional ones, when I see the light change, slightly different each day, with the striking effects of a low sun, often beaming through mist, sometimes so close to horizontal that trees from a mile or more away can be felt in my eye as if I am reading a bar code. Each morning I look out for the twin tumps of Wittenham Clumps, that the painter Paul Nash painted obsessively throughout his life. Yes, I look out of the train window a lot as well.
Often I write about what I see and hear, the people around me, the view outside. But more frequently my hands are following the train in my head, the train of thought, that unlike the one I am contained by, could take me anywhere.
Giles Goodland was commended in the National (U.K.) Poetry Competition 2010. He has published several books of poetry including A Spy in the House of Years (2001), Capital (2006), What the Things Sang (2009) and The Dumb Messengers (2012). His most recent book is The Masses (Shearsman, 2018). He works in Oxford as a lexicographer and lives in West London.