NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Ohio Railroads by C. S. Giscombe
(Omnidawn Publishing, Richmond, California, 2014)
C.S Giscombe, born in Dayton, Ohio, is an African-American poet and essayist who currently teaches English at UC-Berkeley where he is also curator of the Mixed Blood poetry and talks series. He is a graduate of SUNY at Albany and Cornell University. He is the author of several volumes of poetry including Postcards (1977), At Large (1989), Here (1994), Giscome Road (1998), and Prairie Style (2008) for which he won an American Book Award. In 2010 he was the recipient of the Stephen Henderson Award in Poetry, given by the African American Literature and Culture Society. He has also published a book about Canada – Into and Out of Dislocation (2001) and a book of essays called Back Burner.
Ohio Railroads is a short, lyric essay divided into 8 sections. The significance of the cover is brought to the reader’s attention in section 4:
During the year that my mother was dying I dreamed of walking from West Third Street up a hill, at the top of which was a railroad crossing protected by crossbucks which had caught the light of the sun. A crossbucks, or crossbuck sign, consists of two white arms that form an X – on the arm that extends from the lower left to the upper right is printed the word CROSSING and on the other arm is the word RAILROAD, which is broken into two words – RAIL and ROAD- by its intersection with the unbroken word, CROSSING. Waking, I realized that the dream was, in essence, a memory of a scene I noted many winter mornings on my way to high school on the city bus.
There are three main strands to the essay: a dream, a mother’s death and a railroad crossing. Beginning with the dream, Giscombe envisions his mother’s death, falling, indistinguishable from rain, from a Dayton railroad bridge. Only later do we discover that this was not, in fact, the way that she died – she died from an extended illness – yet the dream is the driving force behind the author’s need to visit the location the day after her death, driving up to the railroad tracks in her 1984 Toyota Camry to overlook the city. In this way, the essay becomes an extended elegy as he grieves for his mother’s death in his home surroundings.
The scene is Dayton, Ohio. The text revolves around trains and train tracks and is backed up by historical maps of the Pennsylvania and Dayton railroads that snake their way through the cities of America and Dayton in particular. Landmarks are touched upon and also boundaries. In most cities, rivers and railroads are the great dividers of society and race. Associations with family, race, history and mythology abound in this essay, especially matters concerned with race. Prominent people of mixed race such as Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Frederick Douglass and W. E. DuBois are mentioned in the narrative. In Dayton, from the 1940s until the mid 1970s, black people lived west of the Great Miami River, we are told, and in 2008, the term of description, the West Side, still meant black Dayton, though in fact black people in 2008 lived in all parts of Dayton except Oakwood.
Railroads often go through the least salubrious parts of a city – they give us a glimpse of areas that the tourist board would not necessarily want us to see. The view is frequently intimate – we see into people’s back yards, factory warehouses, marshalling yards, building lots... things that, in a somewhat eccentric way, fire a writer’s imagination. They provide the spin-off for little histories about things as diverse as housing projects, a farmer’s market, a Veteran Administration Campus, funeral parlours and Dayton National Cemetery.
The sense of history and continuity that railroads bring to a city comes very much to the fore in this essay: In 2008, the Dayton railroads continued to operate along right-of-ways that had been planned and graded and built into Dayton or through Dayton in the latter half of the 19th century. The railroads come in from Cincinnati to the southwest, from Toledo to the north, and from Columbus – the state capital – to the northeast. The history of the railroads is traced through its mergers and the changing industrial landscape through which they operate. The merging of races is also featured here. When discussing his current home we learn that black history in the East Bay –as Berkeley and Oakland are known- is connected to railroad history.
Giscombe at one time worked as a railroad brakeman and he acknowledges his childhood fascination with trains as having an influence on his writing. As a child I would sit in the Wilkes & Worth Barbershop on West Fifth Street and gaze at the trains crossing Mound Street – the track was two blocks south of the shop’s plate glass windows – while the barbers and my father argued about national politics and about the contradictions of Negro life in Dayton. Given this attachment to the railroads, it comes as no surprise to learn that portions of poems written in his previous book, Prairie Style were written on Amtrak.
Giscombe is also interested in place, especially when it is related to home. His essay abounds in street names, topographical features and local history – especially the kind that impacts on a community in a big way, such as the train crash in 1910 in which 19 people died and the Dayton Flood which killed 300 people in 1913. In section 5, mention is made of his current home in California. This is again viewed in terms of railroads. It is the railroads that hold these places together as carriers of passengers and also of trade.
Ohio Railroads is a thoughtful, meditative piece of writing, in which a family, a history and a particular place are celebrated in the wider context of America as a whole.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014).