Friday, July 31, 2015

The train, the rain, and ‘Pomes Penyeach’

I love train travel. Even the morning commute across two trains from West to East I used to love. I love the sway of them, the rumble of them, the narrowness of them forcing all these bodies together as a reminder that in each separate skull exists a universe of memories, ancestry and experiences. I don’t even mind that sometimes people on them are strange or smelly.

I have a train-affectation others might find strange. On train trips, long or short, I always have that arts-student staple: a ‘slim volume of poetry’. I started collecting battered old ‘slim volumes’ when I was in my late teens, often buying them from the Lake Bookhouse in Daylesford, and usually buying ones with loving inscriptions in the front leaves. The inscriptions could sway me to buy something more than knowledge of the poet. I loved that people used to give each other slim volumes of poetry and write messages in them too.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties I also fell very romantically in love (and with a surprising subtlety of inaction) with a man in his (very) late forties. He would perform at a place I often went, and scatter poetry recitation between music making with a glib and puckish sense of mischief. I adored him and knew nothing would or could ever happen, so I didn’t feel the need to test my developing wiliness on him! He must have known of my crush, and he always treated me respectfully, coming over at breaks to chat about books and music.

When I turned 21 he gave me a used 1960’s copy of James Joyce’s ‘Pomes Penyeach’. On the third page in and in a broad stroke of ink he’d written, 'To A, with love,...'

The book though old was entirely unmarked save on thing: A single page had its corner folded. On that page was an asterix above the poem title. And the final word of the poem was underlined. To this day I wonder if he was telling me something, or if the notation was inherited with the second-hand book. The wondering was always OK and still is. On trains, reading the poem again, my heart feels warm and pleased with the gift he gave my young and chaotic self.


Thee moon’s greygolden meshes make
All night a veil,
The shorelamps in the sleeping lake
Laburnum tendrils trail.

The sly reeds whisper to the night
A name- her name-
And all my soul is a delight
A swoon of shame

(James Joyce, Zurich, 1916)