Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Adlestrop Revisited \ Letter To Billy Collins

Alan: I wrote this for Nancy’s daughter after her cancer diagnosis earlier this year.  I had previously shared with her Edward Thomas’ lyric, Adlestrop, and this poem emerged from the swirl of emotions following news of her illness.

Adlestrop Revisited
                                        for Christine Nielsen

I too remember Adlestrop, that name
murmuring of Edwardian summer
heat, blue sky and small, still clouds,
the new-cut fields, the train’s unexpected
pause, the open windows and the song
of birds charming the poet’s ear
to the very edges of the twinned bucolic shires:
the fulgent calm before the onslaught
of the August guns.

Was this the unassuming place
to which his mind turned from the trenches,
the muck and stench – this single minute
his refuge of remembered music
in the midst of carnage – his mild paradise?
Was he there again, abstracted,
as he stood to light his pipe
when the concussive shell
sent him straight to heaven or to hell?

I too saw Adlestrop, only the name,
as my own train from London rattled by
one afternoon.  It was the late ‘70s;
the sign a held glimpse in a long row of green.
I don’t remember hayfields.  Was it late June?
Summer surely, but, windows closed,
heat if there was heat kept itself outside.
Still, “Adlestrop,” and I could feel myself
turned back some sixty years and more
to linger in that simple perfect place.

Poetry came to him along with war.
Three years at most of each,
one hundred forty verses more or less,
and yet those so un-modern lines,
their speaking of a world already obsolete,
echoed long after the guns fell silent.
“He was the father of us all,” said Hughes.
Through the second and more wars since,
and all the troubled peace, 
a century on, here in this old New World,
the birds still sing and hold me
in a place both now and in-between.

In the season of biting flies,
in the season of morning fogs
burned off by afternoon to blowtorch winds,
in the time of thunderstorms,
of mosquitoes mobbing the screens at dusk,
there are those days now and again
when the mist lifts and the breeze comes fresh and clean 
for a midday hour or two.
I think of you then.
I think of you too in the days of humid heat
you love so well, and seek, and in the long evenings 
shortening already, though one can
hardly as yet tell.

The sky is too big here, with always
something going on.  I wish,
but so far no fair-weather cloudlets,
lonely and still as haycocks.  Smears, streaks,
broad strokes, washed blues and roiling masses.
I think of you day by day, even when alone
surrounded by friends and love.
We are so far from Adlestrop.
Yet here they are, at last –
soft as downland sheep watched
by the slow-moving sun.
It feels a kind of coming home.

Beeching’s axe fell hard and sharp on Adlestrop,
severing the goods trains from the platforms first.
Another swing and down the station went,
one hundred years and more smashed up
and hauled away as bricks and dust.
That was 1966.  I turned up one year later
on the liner Maasdam, Montreal to Southampton:
the anchor dropping in a hard blow, the ship listing
half the night, the morning harbor all
whitecapped blue.  Disembarking
to the storybook sight of bobbies, red call boxes,
and those little trains like a model railroad
or something out of Disneyland.
I took one up to London, then to Birmingham:
not the Cotswold line.  That would have to wait.

Britain chose the lorry, car and motorway:
Adlestrop became another hamlet without purpose
except now as a bit of picturesqueness
(heritage rating 3 of 5) and place of pilgrimage
by those who love the poem.  The station
sign, I’m told, was placed outside the bus
shelter and a station bench is also there,
enclosed, bearing the poem as a plaque.
If I could visit, I would pass it by.
But I could swear the sign, some sign,
was there along the track that later year.

And what if it wasn’t really there?
If all I saw athwart the rocking car
was anonymous bland greenery
from Oxford all the way to Gloucester?
The sign some ectoplasmic emanation
of the writer’s mind made visible
and carried by a lyric held by heart?
Would it matter?  I go there at my will.
It is a place of peace.  I go there still.

In the season of the hermit thrush,
fluting awake the dawn, and of the midday ovenbird,
I think of you.
In the season of full flowering,
of the second mowing,
of high summer before the turn,
of the deep in-breath before
whatever is to come.

Where is your respite now, in these heavy days,
your heart’s ease and clear-headed calm?
Your place of blue skies and
fair-weather cumulus?  You’ve told us.
Somewhere warm along the old canal,
upstate New York. Medina,
Chittenango, maybe Clyde.

I see you cycling steadily, unhurried,
aware of all around: the still water,
grit under tires, pasture smell,
a duck splashing down ahead.
Do you hear a meadowlark?

I see you among the small towns
and villages of that route, riding
where you will, taking in
the history, taking photos in memory,
knowing that at the end
you’ll find a gallery or museum,
or lunch at a cafe, sitting under
some old shade tree, a glass of Malbec,
sun dappling the grass,
alone in the bright moment,
uncaring, Adlestrop at last.

Nancy:  Not that I’d really write to a poet laureate (2001-03, US; 2004-06, New York State), but reading his poem, Fishing on the Susquehanna in July, certainly stirred happy memories.

Letter To Billy Collins

Dear Billy,
I'm sorry you never fished,
never saw, never slid
down the muddy banks
of the Susquehanna.

I'd have taken you fishing, Billy,
taken you down to the young, strong
river, let the fish and the mudpuppies,
the birdsong and cicada song
wash over you.

To think – that you traced
the thin blue line, down from the hills,
down to the sea, murmuring
Susquehanna, Susquehanna –
thin blue line on a map.

Oh Billy, I wish I'd taken you with me
down to my favorite spot; we'd get up at dawn
and walk down to the river,
walk down in the dewy grass; we'd sit on the bank,
sit all morning, fishing in the Susquehanna.

“Adlestrop Revisted” was first posted on Christine Nielsen’s blog, A Galloping Cat.

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