KANPUR CENTRAL RAILWAY STATION
Halfway through our time there it was late
and we were changing trains at Kanpur
when we lost Leo who’d been with us ever since.
It was not even that crowded when we got back
with tea and sweets he’d been watching the bags which were
where we’d left them but he was not.
It was late. Each of us, it turned out,
was suddenly missing something—Veda, pen, pot, scarf,
beads—that seemed, when it went missing, trivial
but became, over time, of vast importance
the way Leo went from quiet guy to lost guide late at night
on the platform in Kanpur when we were changing trains.
What had seemed reliable and in place, what we had come to know,
what, despite being so bizarre as to be beyond imagining when we set out,
had become familiar, and this, that had become familiar, turned on us,
on us and not away from us, and Leo was the first to go.
It began with Leo.
Here’s a link to a video of the author reading “Kanpur Central Railway Station”:
Elizabeth T. Gray Jr. is a poet, translator (of classical and contemporary Persian), and corporate consultant. Her collection of poems, SERIES / INDIA was published by Four Way Books in April 2015. Other work has appeared in Little Star, Talisman, The Kenyon Review Online, New England Review, Ploughshares, The Harvard Review, Best New Poets 2012, and elsewhere. She has a B.A. and J. D. from Harvard University and an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College. Her website is www.elizabethtgrayjr.com.
Notes on “Kanpur Central Railway Station”
This poem is from a book called SERIES / INDIA that I had the pleasure of reading and discussing with its author at AWP 2015 in Minnesota. On one level, the book tells the story of a group of young American men and women—some would call them “hippies” the author says—on a pilgrimage to India in search of “adventure, completion, enlightenment, sex, dope, [or] The Answer.” The book and its characters are fictional constructs, but, like the best examples of such constructs, are rooted in personal experience; Gray has been “immersed” in India’s “religions, history, mythologies, literatures for at least 40 years.”
When I asked about the book’s invocation of various Eastern mythologies, the author pointed out that while western religions perceive the divine as centripetal, in India the divine is perceived as centrifugal, something that “spins out and manifests itself into myriad, shifting, fascinating forms.” Counter-intuitive as it may sound, centrifugal force is one of the ordering principles of the book and at the very least is a trope enacted structurally in its many shifting points of view. SERIES / INDIA braids the perspectives of the young travelers, with the voices of two of them—Sarah and Blake—predominating. As the voices change, events are “refracted through different lenses” but they are unified through the group’s common experience of them. The various speakers may be “avatars of one another” and at times a voice Gray calls the “meta-hippie” seems to speak for them all. This fluidity of perspective proliferates mystery and depth, conjuring a shimmering vision that emphasizes the simultaneity rather than the linear presentation of events in time. I think of the poems in SERIES / INDIA as beads in a necklace, but one closed in a circle or puddled on a dresser rather than extended to its full, unclasped length.
“Kanpur Central Railway Station” is told from the point of view of one of the book’s travelers. Ultimately it matters little which voice is speaking because it relates an experience common to all: betrayal by Leo, someone the group had come to think of as one of them. Through everyday contact, the travelers came to trust Leo in the same way they came to believe in their journey, one they might at one time have considered “bizarre beyond imagining.” Leo’s betrayal is very unsettling because it puts into jeopardy the trust the others have placed in the larger enterprise, their collective journey. The poem ends on a cliff-hanger, telling us that “Leo was the first to go. It began with Leo” suggesting that others also will in time abandon the group and that some larger dissolution (“It”) is, menacingly, already in the works.
Although this poem is written in modern free verse, my (admittedly sensitive) sonnet-radar detects in it a ghost of that centuries-old form. To begin with, anytime a poem is close to 14 lines (this one is 16), I have to wonder. Although “Kanpur” is not strictly metered, I found myself able to scan the first ten lines as iambic pentameter and the last six as hexameter, both traditional sonnet meters. More compellingly, the poem turns in the same places I’d expect a sonnet to turn. Lines 10 and 11 (proportionately correspondent with the 8th or 9th lines where voltas reside in Petrarchan sonnets) express a turn in consciousness, a shocked recognition that events once deemed “trivial” actually have “vast importance.” The poem’s last two lines (analogous to a Shakespearian sonnet’s closing couplet) contain an actual, physical turn in the phrase describing how Leo “turned on us.” Finally, the poem does make very subtle use of the patterned end-rhyme conventionally seen in sonnets. Lines 1, 6, 11, and 14 terminate in near-rhymes (late/not/night/out), with exactly five lines between the second and third instances and three lines between the third and last instance. The end word “night” gains resonance from another near-rhyme in that line, “late” in “late at night.” A second series of end rhyme occurs in lines 13 and 16, concluding with “know” and “Leo,” respectively. Moreover, as in line 11, line 16 saturates and intensifies its end-rhyme with a proximate internal rhyme: “Leo was the first to go. It began with Leo.” How fascinating—and devastating—that the sound emphasized here at the end of the poem is the archetypal human utterance of shock and grief: “O.”
The poem describes an event that is a turning point in the larger journey, the moment when things begin to fall apart, and this function is supported by its placement almost exactly in the middle (34th of 63 poems) in the book. As such, it performs a dramatic function in the larger text. Is this function also reflected in the poem’s genre or mode? I see it as predominantly narrative, with the speaker looking back and telling a story about an event in his or her past, but with lyrical (those sound repetitions) and dramatic elements (the foreshadowing and suspense that close the poem). In the end, “Kanpur” defies characterization as lyric, narrative, or dramatic and reminds us that when done well, the blending of poetic genres can produce an amalgam of story, music, and tension as compelling as any work of fiction, and I admire the poem for the way it makes me want to read on, to keep turning the pages of the book, SERIES / INDIA.
Rebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.