Poetry Sunday: “End of the Line,” by Kate Peper

With the most remarkable restraint, the speaker limits her reaction to what the doctor has said to one sentence composing the last stanza. “I didn’t hear his voice after that,” she says, then muses about what is happening, right at that moment, in her own body. The title’s image of railroad tracks just—stopping—is powerfully revisited and consolidated in the poem’s last lines imagining each ovum as a train “released into her own dark passage, / entering a terminal without lights, / with no one to meet her.” Let’s look a little more closely at these remarkable lines. To begin with, the imagery is stunning. I grew up in a defunct railroading town, so as soon as I read the poem’s title, I remembered the tracks ending in a fallow field near my childhood home. Other readers might not make the railroad connection right away, since “end of the line” has become a powerful trope or even cliché in our language meaning no way forward, no future. But those last three lines, especially in the words “terminal” (a pun on a word that can either mean a train stop or the end of anything) and “dark passage” (evoking a tunnel) make the railroading metaphor accessible to everyone. It’s a devastating image, all the more so for its understatement, and by way of it we become able to apprehend something of what it might feel like to be a person physically incapable of having children. The journey down the fallopian tube is a dark passage leading to a dead-end for the egg, but perhaps is more than that, expressing the speaker’s belief or fear that her ancestral line, represented in the aunt and uncle of earlier stanzas, will end with her. In a sense, she has been released into the dark passage of her own future with no one to meet her. It’s a chilling and painful thought, but take note of what we don’t see in this poem: no shred of self-pity, hysterics, or complaint.

I’ve spoken before about the power of cliché in good writing. Writing students are routinely cautioned to avoid cliché, and for good reason, since most are a kind of tired shorthand so familiar to us that we no longer hear the words being said or reflect on what they mean. But an expression does not become a cliché in the first place unless what is said and how it is said is psychological dynamite. “Right as rain,” when it was first coined, was just right, so much so that its use penetrated the language like a drop of ink swirled into a glass of water. If clichés are used with the writer’s consciousness and acknowledgment that they are in fact cliché, they can be refreshed, made new again. Molly Peacock does this in one poem in The Analyst using the expression “bright as rain” in place of the expected “right as rain.” Knowing today’s poet, I can tell you that she certainly was aware that “End of the Line” would be criticized by some as cliché and she also knew enough to allow it to stand as the title. Her poem does the necessary work of reminding us of where that phrase came from, the very last stop on a railway line, and it makes us hear it again as for the first time.

Rereading today’s poem, I glean some small comfort from the first two stanzas. Even people biologically capable of having children, even people with five sons (generally perceived to be the ones who carry the family name forward), sometimes reach the end of their ancestral line in their own lives. Others live full lives confident of having left some kind of legacy even when, for whatever reason, they have no children. The examples of the uncle and the aunt show us that the speaker does not feel singled out. She understands that her suffering is not unique. She does not seek our sympathy, and perhaps that is one reason we can participate with such empathy in the experience of reading this poem.

Soon it will be Memorial Day, a national holiday established in the U.S. for remembering people who have died, some in our nation’s wars, and the “Five stars on the jamb” of today’s poem clearly fits this theme. But if literature and poetry are ways to remember our beloved dead, they can also be ways of mourning the unborn. Who will remember us after we are gone? It’s a question this poem asks and to which is itself its own answer. As long as this poem is read—and I hope it is forever—its speaker will be remembered. Some people think of their poems as their children, and the analogy is a good one: We create something from our own breath, flesh, and spirit and then set it loose in the world. Sometimes we outlive it and sometimes it outlives us, but there is something vital and eternal and, I think, comforting in the simple act of any creation.

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