Trains of Thought

Train Songs, eds Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson
(hbk, 172pp, 12.99, Faber)
ISCA: Exeter Moments
, William Oxley (48pp, 12.50, Ember Press)

I grew up with a father who had been an engineer and draughtsman before becoming a teacher and who loved both planes and trains. Like a lot of boys, I often resisted this interest: I wasn't that into the model railway he assembled for me one christmas, and along with my sister and mother was often impatient when around steam locomotives, trams, buses or historical aircraft, although I do remember some good times at the Yeovilton Fleet Air Arm Museum en route to Devon holidays, and a ride on the Dartmouth Steam Railway. And, of course, plenty of visits to the Science Museum in London each school holiday. But in the main it wasn't until after my father died that I allowed myself to admit that perhaps I did quite like steam railways; and to this day I prefer train travel to car journeys.

So without turning into a trainspotter, I have enjoyed two visits to the York train museum, and have been known to cycle through Exeter to view - at a distance - the splendid site of a train in full steam charging through the station or across a viaduct. And once, soon after my dad died, I cried my eyes out as the Flying Scotsman pulled into Paignton station to pull my inlaws and other family to lunch in Dartmouth. I had no idea the Scotsman was on the route that summer - my dad would have loved to have seen it both in steam and close up.

Faber's Train Songs
anthology was a surprise parcel. It comes wrapped in a block print image of a steam train, all reds and olive greens and grey, but the contents are much tougher and more contemporary than this image might suggest. Yes, of course there is an excerpt from Auden's 'Night Mail' and McGonagall's appalling 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' (Sorry, I can't deal with McGonagall at all, even ironically), but there are also plenty of contemporary poems and overlooked poems by major poets.

Readers will find Reznikoff and Pound strap-hanging with Edwin Morgan, Matthew Sweeney and Michael Donaghy on the 'Underground'; John  Ashbery, Michael Longley, Louis MacNeice, Louise Glück and Carol Ann Duffy among the 'Travellers'; Whitman, Koch, Jarrell, Simic, Larkin and the great Flanders & Swann among those in the opening section 'Prospects'.  And the book opens with Seamus Heaney's 'The Railway Children', which is synchronicitous since he died only yesterday.

The introduction considers the idea of trains facilitating time travel, but it is also a sense of being outside time which allows the poet time to reflect on what is passing, where they have been, where they are going - literally and metaporically. Trains are part of society, but one is also outside society when one is travelling on the train: forced into unnatural intimacy with strangers, and often seeing the landscape anew, or the lesser known and unloved parts of cities.

With its mix of old and new, well known and obscure poems, its inclusion of worksongs and other lyrics, its digressionary, humourous and more serious work, this anthology is an unexpected delight; a book to travel with and travel through in the comfort of your own home.

I will always associate William Oxley with trains. Not only because of the nickname we bestowed on him - Puffing Billy - in the days when he was seldom to be found without a pipe in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other, but also because to me he is synonymous with Devon, particularly that south coast area where the train travels along between red cliffs and the sea. He and his wife Patricia, along with poet and novelist Alexis Lykiard, were the first people to make us welcome when we moved to Exeter in the late 1980s; and this book is, among other things, a celebration of the informal community of writers who would convene in Exeter every so often. It is also a poetic and photographic study of Exeter, a romanticised view of the author's time spent there.

I don't mind saying I was greatly moved by being named in both a poem and the notelike 'ISCA Jottings' which closes the book, for I too am sometimes nostalgic for places and people we left behind in Exeter and Devon a few years ago. And if emotion and feeling, along with formal observation and cleverly constructed poems, and clear, informative photos (by Barry Davidson) are what you want, then this is the book for you. As William knows all too well, though, I tend to want more than the philosophical questioning tone he adopts here; I can't begin to imagine what readers who don't know the city or names here would make of this book.

And whilst there is no need for poetry to be 'true', literally or otherwise, I am sure that some of the characters listed here were never all in the same place at the same time. So Tony, Phil, Mary, Neil, Alexis, and Uncle Tom Cobbly & all are viewed through a kind of wishful haze, in much the same way that the canal basin, churches, cathedrals, as well as assorted statues, pubs and gardens are - given a spiritual and emotional patina that to be honest they often don't deserve.

I don't wish to over-criticize this book, perhaps because part of me wants to feel immortalized and special, and I am not beyond buying into poetic histories of place and people, but part of me resists and knows I want more from poetry, want to be challenged and provoked, by language, form and content. In the end William Oxley's Exeter is too cozy and comfortable a place to live, however tempted I sometimes might be.

        Rupert Loydell 2013