At the heart of Donna Lewis Cowan’s poem “Paris to Rome” is the jarring and yet ultimately productive mystery of a train ride. Indeed, from the beginning, before the train is ever boarded, this travel poem opens a space in time in which the unexpected can occur. While the collective “we” had hoped, like many tourists, to “dash between // the tomes of history, just to see / the sights,” the speakers “arrived [in Paris] after the Iraq invasion” but “before the European heat wave.” It is here, in between the “before” and “after,” and during “the usual transit strike,” that a gap forms, opening normal, scheduled time to actual, lived time and opening expectation to experience.
By the poem’s sixth line, the speakers find themselves on the train, “doubled up / in the cars, too many of us.” Even though the tourist experience of traveling among foreign countries by train is relatively common, Cowan’s poem reveals that there is nonetheless something unsteady, something unfamiliar, about that experience, for the “too many of us” find themselves “awake in the sleeper.” So too, here, the poem switches abruptly into present tense, the train’s unsteadying effect carried over into written effect as the poem itself—long and thin—journeys down the page.
In his fascinating study The Railway Journey (University of California Press, 1977), historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch explores the new experience of train travel in the nineteenth century and how it affected passengers who were used to much slower forms of overland travel—like the walk, the horse ride, and the stagecoach. Indeed, early passengers who used the new train technology found themselves strangely objectified by the experience, turned from a person into a parcel, as a popular nineteenth century saying phrased it. So too rail travel changed travelers’ sensory perceptions dramatically—not only did the smells and sounds that might accompany a long coach ride disappear, but travelers’ visual perceptions were changed entirely. They could no longer look ahead; rather, “all they saw was an evanescent landscape” (55). Schivelbusch quotes Victor Hugo’s description of the view from a train window in a letter dated 22 August 1837:
The flowers by the side of the road are no longer flowers but flecks, or rather streaks, of red or white; there are no longer any points, everything becomes a streak; the grainfields are great shocks of yellow hair; fields of alfalfa, long green tresses; the towns, the steeples, and the trees perform a crazy mingling dance on the horizon; from time to time, a shadow, a shape, a spectre appears and disappears with lightning speed behind the window: it’s a railway guard. (qtd. 55-56)
The train car window, then, offered a new way of seeing the world, and a new way of seeing the world produces an entirely new world, a strange world, even a discomforting world, as Cowen’s speakers, far from home, pressed against strangers, and riding through foreign terrain, similarly realize:
We go deeper into countryside
and houses recede further
from the tracks, as if
this is not what was wanted,
or not entirely—
Suddenly, the entire project of travel, the speakers’ journey and their intention for that journey, is thrown into question by the experience of train travel—in short, their control is gone. The speakers feel as if the landscape itself is pulling back from the train, from tourists readings maps and “rendering Saint Cloud // a Yankee god of precipitation.” “What was it for?” the speakers wonder, the heavy ambiguity of “it” serving to create for the reader his or her own unsteadying experience.
And yet, self-doubting and “sealed” from the world’s sounds, the speakers find that the train’s rhythms “steep in our skin.” The physical experience of riding affects them, first jarringly and then in a kind of transformation: “Call it antidote,” the speakers say. This antidote—being made uncomfortable, being made to see anew, having one’s expectations give way to the possibilities of present experience— redeems the journey. In this way, Cowan captures the strangeness and wonder that results from the discomfiture of the train ride and from travel more generally, and I love that, even as the poem ends, the train barrels on through the unfamiliar landscape, “the track divined / and steady over rough terrain.”
—Corinna McClanahan Schroeder
Corinna McClanahan Schroeder’s poetry appears or is forthcoming in such journals as Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Poet Lore, and Blackbird. She is the recipient of a 2010 AWP Intro Journals Award in poetry and was named a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship in 2011. She holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi and is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Southern California. Her poem, “Years Later, I See My Old Self Stumbling Down the Street,” appears with Donna Lewis Cowan’s “Paris to Rome” in 32 Poems 10.1.