Your Father on the Train of Ghosts
C. Waldrep and John Gallaher
Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd.
G.C. Waldrep is one of my favorite contemporary poets and his 2008 book Disclamor is to me a masterwork in short form of geographical and political observation alike. Taking grand inspiration from his personal experiences in walking around the abandoned Cold War defensive batteries and bunkers of Marin County, California, Waldrep considered the complex meanings of these former measures to ensure American security in an age where security concerns once again is at an apex. Cold War history is of keen interest to me anyways, but Waldrep in this book drew together bits of history that might only lure in a military history nerd like myself under normal circumstances yet somehow, via careful craft and expansive knowledge, spins from them tales as much about the internal workings of society and personality as about coastal fortifications. Thus, when BOA Editions sent me Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, for review the first thing I noticed about this fairly thick volume was that Waldrep was one of its authors, and that was plenty to raise my interest. Next though, I learned exactly what I had in my hands: the unique fruit of the labor of two poets—Waldrep and John Gallaher, an equally esteemed American poet—working in tandem to produce poems via email. That is, these two men are not just co-authors of a book, a collection, but of each poem it contains and they wrote these works via sending words and phrases back and forth electronically.
This writing concept is apt for our internet age and may even seem innovative but also perhaps a bit more appropriate for an undergraduate course than the efforts of two leading contemporary poets, yet like any literature the proof of the pudding must be in the eating, not in the size of the kitchen, the name of the chef, or anything else. What may at first seem like an exercise quickly reveals itself to be a serious working modality in the able hands of Gallaher and Waldrep. A line such as “After the fire, November was a surgeon’s voice” in the poem “Night Autopsy” carries all the allure you’d expect when you encounter it halfway through the poem but also stills you in the reality of poetry that writes of our modern day lives, our contemporary situation so mediated by technology including the very internet magic and email speediness that helped facilitate this poem. Though “Night Autopsy” is held together by the twine of the current, the real, I cannot help but feel though there’s something very film noir, very much historical, very romantic and yet no-nonsense about it, too.
In the titular poem, the images are exacting and pointed, moving the father himself onto the “train of ghosts” and into a world of ample metaphor and images fitting for an aged man who can recall much of a varied and violent century:
Maybe he’s watching the hot-air balloons
that have just appeared
all over the sky, ribbed like airborne hearts
of the giants Jack killed.
In the stories, Jack has no father.
This would explain a lot, you are thinking
as the train begins to pull away.
This is a twentieth-century man: there are wars, and there are trains, airplanes, all manner of vehicles fit for fast travel. Hot-air ballons, those festive fanfares of romance with little real function in contemporary aviation aside from providing newlyweds a lovely view of the countryside or serving as the backgrounds of health insurance ads: They seem fit for just the watching of or the watching from, little more. We are, however, no longer in the twentieth-century and this train itself seems to leave with little fanfare.
Knowing where Waldrep comes from—both in terms of his acute geography and his literary eye—is helpful in approaching this collection. I know much less of Gallaher, but knowing Waldrep I am able in many places to discern his voice in the poems and by subtraction, isolate Gallaher as the other voice remaining. Gallaher seems to share Waldrep’s way of seeing, he seems adept at finding the nuanced motifs of varied trips to other nations, flights afar, and most of all the violence of war. There is here a sense of exoticism but never for its own sake or for the plain sake of artifice. In some places war is even mentioned without being described in enough detail to pinpoint it, but there’s something about the typology of vague Cold War references and general tenor of voice that makes me think of the Vietnam War above all else. Part of this is seeing that what matters—in the dialog between the two poets—arises the necessary facets of dialog between men in general, and comrades in arms certainly come to mind. We also source the voices of men—these two men, other men, the unspoken “father”—at various stations of life: we can hear the voice of the college-aged kid or the young enlisted man beside the words of men well into middle-age.
The age of the authors, or better posited, their collective awareness of age and history, furthers their output markedly. A young man doesn’t write a poem such as “Elegy for the Manhattan Project” or “Trade Deficit”. If a young man were to, he’d be a young fellow with a very old heart. The aforementioned “Night Autopsy” in title and content, part and parcel, is exceptionally masterful. We—most of us who are not pathologists, anyhow—know post-mortems via television crime dramas which have in recent years made much more use of the medical examiner it seems. The reality though of the job is not as alluring as television makes it and the autopsy as a thing, as an odd chore but routine matter for a select few doctors, is oft outweighed by its power as a metaphor. Here, the metaphoric reach of this task is put to best of purposes though. What of the most literally interrogation of the dead in the heart of the night? What if the medical examiner is running behind and must work into the wee hours of the morning? What if we’re in plague times and the corpses are becoming commonplace?
“Candling the Bodies” is another poem on the theme of stewardship of the dead. The language of it, whether by intention of the authors or happenstance, suggests to me the mortuary affairs complex at Dover Air Force Base where war dead arrive to be prepared for their military funerals:
So our job at the hangar
was to hold each of the bodies
up to a bright light, to see
if there were any other
Day in, day out
we sifted the bodies
from their crates of sawdust.
This is not how, I would think, the work is done at Dover, nor are “other bodies” sought out within the corpses. Dr. William St. Clair Symmers, the great pathologist and writer of medical miscellany, might well appreciate this poem but again the role of metaphor is forged right on top of close reality. As soon as we connect a “hangar” and “bodies” in reading this, how can we not think of corpses—and the war dead at that? However, for all we know—and really, all the poem ever tells—the “bodies” may not even be human. Perhaps there is a corpus at work here, not a corpse; perhaps the bodies are animal and the work veterinary; perhaps they are the spent shells of a warplane, a bird of prey? In any case, as with “Night Autopsy” we get more terse, glaring, yet fully unresolved intersections of life and death.
When I first sat down with this book, I will admit I wondered how well the innovative concept of shared writing of poetry via email would work out and I even feared the Waldrep I’d come to so greatly respect would be washed of his distinct voice in a tandem effort. I had no reason to worry, as it turns out, because Gallaher and Waldrep develop on these pages an uncanny, consummate, ability to write cohesive poems that while united in tenor retain each man’s own voice and come together like a fabric made by an ultra-lux fashion house. Not simply an experiment, this book is ample in length and very serious in tone—encompassing in quality and scope. I highly recommend it as one of the most diverse, unique, and engrossing poetry books of the past couple years and I hope for more work of this approach by Waldrep and Gallaher.