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The Train

A poem based on recurrent and shared dreams, spring 1974, by John Hollander

In a poem of the spring of 1974... called "The Train" I worked some of the landscape from recurring dreams of my own and of my wife of twenty years from whom I was just then separated; it was as if perhaps to augment imagination's power over events it could only represent.

"The Train" concerns two fictional dreamers, lying beside each other in bed, dreaming overlapping--or, in the mythology of the poem, interpenetrating--dreams. Actual dreams of transportation systems, missed connections and of a particular, unique dream which had in fact recently been " shared" by two sleepers in bed together--these composed the scenery of various episodes in the poem, which were connected by continuing glimpses of a train--the train of the poem's thought--making its way through a larger landscape. Sometimes, in a tunnel, it became the actual sexual penetration of one of the sleepers by the other, and similarly one dream "inside" another one. That railroad ties are called "sleepers" provides another mode of connection between the metaphoric train and the dreamers in and around the poem.

I don't think that I could have managed "The Train" (a poem which I prize highly) without having come to terms with the meta-relation, as it were, of three relations between dream and text:

  1. allusion to actual dreams of one's own,
  2. narrative fictions of dreaming in the text, and
  3. the condition of poetry (or genre of poem, if one must, or intensity of poetic force) which allows a poetic text, no matter how carefully contrived and constructed, to escape from the hand of the poet's wit, and partake of the unwitting poesis of dream work. Poems are neither nightdream nor day-dream...

The dreamers lie like sections
Of curved track from a toy train
That will not make a neat concentric fit (the
Inner radius of curvature of each
Not being equal to that of the outer)
And if not like dreaming rails abuzz with one
Another's trembling, and if
Unconformingly in touch, then yet bedded
By their ties in a road of
Some soft sort. Outside, clattered
Freight of daylight goes by half heard only; their
Hearing cannot count out the
Innocent childhood rhymes of
Passing: cattlecar, coalcar, boxcar, flatcar
sneezing by at the
End of sound as the obscured
Quiet hillside becomes plain again). They have
Uncoupled, the dreamers, after the throbbing
Train, long halted in the soft
Tunnel, has backed out into daylight again.

Was it that the train had lain
Safe in the tunnel, that the hole in the long
Hill was home? It awoke there
To a lowered roar after a flashing by
Of wan marsh grasses, cattails
Brushing up grays in the miserable air:
After these flashing by past
Glass there came the running by
Of the small walls of darkness.
The stiff train lay in its strait
Funnel at the time that the
Sleepers began their nocturnal journeyings.

Sleepers lie under the rails.
They travel backward, the hard crossties that could
Crack hatchets, lying under the singing track.
The rails dream of rhyming; they
Turn into verse, endless lines
Not measured in sevens or in elevens,
Say, but continuing on
Into a converging strip.
They dream the epic of gleaming and distant
Vanishing, and diminution of time, and
They sleep dreamlessly under phrases of roar
And passages of clicking
Wheels. And these soft rails, the two
Dreamers, are being children of eleven,
Say, and of seven, and their funny dreams are
Of boxcars loaded with chattering white dice
(Seven meanwhile awakens,
Trembling, in the matter of a skull, or so
The shorter dreamer remembers). Remember
That they are poised yet in their
Sojourn of waking: they do
Not dream of these dreams. But as
The pliant engine gathers its wits back from
A sweet dream deep in the tunnel in the hill
As if drawn by its tender
Out of the inner lamplit red into blue
Light of outer night, one recalled an old dream:

Which same came running: the great
High track of night, the elevated structure
Of blackened steel higher than
High, swerving across most of the horizon,
Curving into a station
Perched like a box atop it.
The most important train ran
Along there carrying one
Across the unfamiliar
Fields of a city that was
At once one's own and unknown.
The tracks were too high. At the
End of the journey everything was too low:
One was underground more deeply than one had
Been above it, in vast caverns of brown hewn
Stone, Piranesian vaults, complex levels
Of track and tunnel opening into the
Deepest hall of all. The train
That had run on rails too tall
Now paused by a wall too low--as if a clock
One needed to live by was always missing
The satisfying cardinal verticals
And could only read seven
Or eleven o'clock, too soon or too late.
This was the dark place of loss.

The other recalled her own
Way, not of rail but concrete:
Unplucked cloverleaves lying
Among each other, woven
Into a frightful chain from
Which there was no escaping--
A frightening on highways
From which there was no turning
Off, ways neither through the dark
Nor free of it whirled around
The looping of things, and back.

Then the tenderly retired engine, the
Emptied tunnel softly regathering its
Inner darknesses, were silent; the roaring
One made in the other slept.
The dreamers felt no sound, and heard nothing of
The moist music of places where the landscape
Was shaded by their touching: soft bush against
Curving track of rump, tributary fingers
Lost among meadows of tresses, all silent;
While flying high overhead in the sunlit blue
A tiny unheard train inches along the
Frail trestle of wisdom, seemingly never
To complete the long crossing.
They are and they were: here, there;
The one, the other; the train,
The tunnel. And just as there
Had been within here, and then
Had driven deep into now,
And as the engine had made
A haven in the hill, so the dream of one
Drew up into the tunnel of the other's,
And waits there now at the Station of Loss,
Being the dream of the last departing train.

This roadbed is at the right
Height: here is none of his high
Impossible trestle or
His dungeon terminal. Nor
Is she here in her poor car
Missing the points of turning
Off: it is to his dreaming
Eye, not hers, that the last trace
Of fear adheres--a travel
Poster on a far platform
Wall shows on a green ground a
White unlucky cloverleaf
Leading screamingly along
Into itself; but this was
Never his fear. Here in their
Interpenetrating dreams
The awaited train arrives
jerkily. They are to board.
But it starts again. And stops.
He runs a few yards farther
Down the platform. Then it stops.
Then it starts again. By now
He can see her standing with
Two small personages far
Back along the platform, bathed
In a light of waiting, and
He knows that no matter what
Happens in the matter of
The train they will wait for him.
She sees the train come and go.
Then the train starts up again.
Rushing toward it, she perceives
The conductor leaning out
A passing window--his mouth
Looks grievously like wet meat.
That is why the train cannot
Wait and why it cannot stop.
She awakens, having missed
The same train. She is in him.

He wakens. They recall
White, high ways, soft, tubular
Buildings, mauve and lemon, tiny ovoid cars
Sliding along the roads and sighing around
The cloverleaf model in handsome plaster,
While the slow train of benches giving on
This visionary scene of what the City
To Come--perhaps West Alabaster--would be,
Snaked through the tunnel of the Fair and floated
Redundant through the mazes of dream undimmed.
He and she sat there a year apart and
Emerged into sunlight wearing a button
Saying I Have Seen the Future. They had not.

Neither have they heard the past, wherein huge, black
Engines released steam and shiny pistons danced
Steel sarabands: neither has the sound of the
Last fast train awakened them;

Passing beyond their window into darkness,
The train runs through them as they each withdraw now
From the unending tunnel of the other.
They turn over once and lie,

Cast there like unwise dice, their numbers covered
(Seven? Eleven?) by the bedclothes, their sleep,
Emptied of dream, resembling more and more its
Ultimate older brother,

And not those twin cousins of slumber, tunnel
And train, receding in the rising morning
Light, the tunnel's mouth overgrown, the engine
Shriveled, the paired rails twisted,

The roadbed rumpled, the clear and distinct cars
Dulled in a painterly blue, the sleepers ripped
Up by the tumult of the earth and lying
Merely among each other,

Like the awakened dreamers, who rise now in
The rinsed sight of each other, entrained bravely
For the day, for the long ailing day, seven
Until eleven, and then

Trailing off into far distance, the train of
Thought awaits their lying down in the Stations
Of Sleep; they will count slowly passing cars and
Board one, a dark one, at last.


The Fair: The New York World's Fair of 1939-40. Buttons saying I Have Seen the Future were distributed there.

--John Hollander--


"The Train" originally appeared in the periodical Canto; it's in John Hollander's collection Blue Wine (© Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979; reprinted here with permission). Hollander's commentary is mostly from Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams (ed. Roderick Townley, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998) with a few emailed additions.

"Actual dreams of transportation systems, missed connections and of a particular, unique dream which had in fact recently been 'shared' by two sleepers in bed together--these composed the scenery of various episodes of the poem..."
Careful wording! Even coy. "Two sleepers" could be anyone, and such ambiguity is deliberate. Did John experience a shared dream firsthand, here a final sharing with his wife as they parted, or with someone new? From this wording, the shared dream could even have been told him by friends.

I've had shared dreams with friends and lovers, so I know the phenomenon is real; I even told a double dream as twin poems, Coffins; but this is the only other poem I've found on such experiences. And what an intricate one! I wish I knew how the original shared dream compares with the poem's images; is it the man's passing notice of a poster in the station, reflecting the woman's dream of a freeway-maze? Or is that a mere intro to the real thing: parallel dreams recalling the World's Fair?

I asked John to let me include this piece because it demonstrates both strengths a dream-artist (of any medium) must aim for:

  1. The guts to bare the most private experiences to strangers.
  2. The technique to clearly convey strange and often troubling matters.

Both are hardly news for artists. The Romantics' notion of "negative capability"--the courage and clarity to walk into the fog around what's known--contains both. But I find most dream-artists focus on half of my formulation! Strong content, weak technique--or vice versa. Hollander cultivates both; The Train seems a powerful example of this two-handed approach.

But John himself has a still more complex tripartite view of dream-poetry:

"three relations between dream and text: (1) allusion to actual dreams of one's own, (2) narrative fictions of dreaming in the text, and (3) the condition of poetry (or genre of poem, if one must, or intensity of poetic force) which allows a poetic text, no matter how carefully contrived and constructed, to escape from the hand of the poets's wit, and partake of the unwitting poesis of dream work."
Creative fever certainly is an altered state, but is it really comparable to the stranger states that dreaming can lead us into? (Not just shared dreams or dream telepathy; lucidity, prediction, clairvoyance, transforming or transcending the self entirely.) Creativity is a dialogue with materials, a busy, sometimes feverishly active state; dreaming, for me, can be busy too, but is more perceptual--traveling, learning, picking up what you (or your tribe) haven't spotted yet on the horizon.

Maybe the narrower view of dreams as mere raw material arose from Freud's obsessive symbol-hunting and wariness about ESP (not dismissal! Even Doktor Reality Principle admitted it was real). Shamans in other cultures treat dreams more literally--as real experiences which can (like any life-experience) be symbolic, but also can provide literal warnings useful to the dreamer and to the wider community. A third eye! That's close to Yeats's view--the dream's both real and symbolic. But then I'd call him a self-taught shaman; as is Blake.

In creation-fever, something extraordinary does happen; but the same thing as dreaming? "Poems are neither nightdream nor day-dream." I just don't know. What do you think?

--Chris Wayan--

LISTS AND LINKS: trains - puns (oh those 'sleepers'!) - sex - sexual symbolism - soul-mates - nocturnes - dreamscapes - lost in mazes (freeway or not!) - shared or telepathic dreams - grief and loss - creative process and dreamwork - dream poetry - more John Hollander: The Dream & The Trumpeter - Wayan's twin dreampoems on twin dreams: Coffins

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