Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Seven Notes on "Your Father on the Train of Ghosts"

Your Father on the Train of Ghosts is book of poems written in collaboration by G.C. Waldrep and John Gallaher.  I kept thinking I was going to write a wonderful and insightful essay about this book, as I have been reading and re-reading it for the past month or more.  But time flies by, and other brillances attract my attention.  So I figure I'd better just do this in the form of notes before I never write anything about it at all.

1. At 221 pages of poetry, this is a bigger volume than most.  The size is both impressive (Look how much these two poets have created together) and, since it runs counter to expectations re: the length of most contemporary volumes, a tad daunting. (Jesus, that's a lot of poetry to get through.)  While no poems come to mind that I'd want to see cut, the sheer volume makes it more difficult for me as a reader to have a favorite, or favorites.  Maybe that's the point of including so many poems in one book. It says, "I will not be anthologized. These poems are a chain and every link is important." Or maybe, "Roam at will. Stop here at this poem, or don't. There are a lot of rooms in this house, and you don't need to sit down in all of them."

2. Here are echoes of voices I heard while reading these poems. Charles Simic.  Mark Strand, particularly his earlier work. Frank O'Hara, if his "I do this, I do that" poems described vivid dreams, instead of the activities of an afternoon. John Ashbery blurbs the book, but the individual poems, for me, jump around far less than the typical Ashbery poem, which often wants to contain the entirety of everything ever thought or said in it. More modest than Ashbery poems?  Or maybe just boxed in a bit more.

3. It struck me reading these poems that the kind of surrealism I appreciate in them is an American surrealism.  The French surrealists, at first, were struggling to bring the dark unconscious into the light, and it was an undertaking drawing on Freud. All those secrets, and forbidden desires, and animal unknowns: a surrealism  meant to give a voice and shape to the subconscious.  I think surrealism is more often used these days to explain or to depict a known but hard-to-grasp emotional reality. Another way of saying this: these poems are not going to discomfort the reader.

4. I think that in collaborative projects there is often a self-congradulatory tone, or a hyper-preciousness that appears on the page--look at us, look at our cleverness, look at this process and how arty we are being by engaging in it.  This tone is NOT at all present in YFOTTOG. You can't "see" the poems being written in front of you.  If the writers are teasing and delighting one another with in-jokes, if they are delighting in their own creation, they are keeping this to themselves.  The voice in these poems is remarkably singular, and even. I don't think anyone would have known if these were collaborations if the authors had not told us. As a writer, I am very curious about Mr. Waldrep and Gallaher worked together.  As a reader, I think the poems speak for themselves.

5. Students of poetry, behold the importance of a good first line!

"We were all together in this nightclub/ where fire was performing..."
"Another jet plane is falling from the sky"
"You open the box and see yourself staring back."
"First. sound is some meat the air is eating"
"The Clouds went by and so did we, just fads,"

6.  Here's the first part of the poem "The Great Migrations." Consider it an appetizer.

All afternoon we kept seeing the hands
in the distance, at the skyline
or else just a little bit above it:

great clouds of them,
like dark birds.

At dusk we imagined them nesting
in the branches of oaks,

7. (Because you have to have seven notes, six just doesn't work.)  The fact of collaboration may be seen, perhaps, in the conversation tone, the asides and remarks, made in that plain everyday language that even cats and dogs can speak.


  1. Great review; I call it one, despite the numbered points. I didn't know about this book, which I've just added to my reading list.

  2. Liked your 7 notes and choice of first lines and snippets! I had never thought about the possible "preciousness" of collaborations.... Thanks for the heads-up.