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Monday, November 14, 2011

Number 302: William Carlos Williams "Overture To A Dance Of Locomotives"

Overture To A Dance Of Locomotives

Men with picked voices chant the names
of cities in a huge gallery: promises
that pull through descending stairways
to a deep rumbling.

The rubbing feet
of those coming to be carried quicken a
grey pavement into soft light that rocks
to and fro, under the domed ceiling,
across and across from pale
earthcolored walls of bare limestone.

Covertly the hands of a great clock
go round and round! Were they to
move quickly and at once the whole
secret would be out and the shuffling
of all ants be done forever.

A leaning pyramid of sunlight, narrowing
out at a high window, moves by the clock:
discordant hands straining out from
a center: inevitable postures infinitely


Porters in red hats run on narrow platforms.

This way ma'am!

—important not to take
the wrong train!

Lights from the concrete
ceiling hang crooked but—

Poised horizontal
on glittering parallels the dingy cylinders
packed with a warm glow—inviting entry—
pull against the hour. But brakes can
hold a fixed posture till—
The whistle!

Not twoeight. Not twofour. Two!

Gliding windows. Colored cooks sweating
in a small kitchen. Taillights—
In time: twofour!
In time: twoeight!

—rivers are tunneled: trestles
cross oozy swampland: wheels repeating
the same gesture remain relatively
stationary: rails forever parallel
return on themselves infinitely.

The dance is sure.

-- William Carlos Williams

Hap Notes: There's a lot going on in this poem but certainly one of the primary exciting elements is the way in which Williams shows us a railway station as a sort of art gallery/theater/natural history museum. There are echoes of past civilizations as well as insect colonies in the verses.

While the images are not all cheery; one can't help but feel that the downward spiraling staircases (in addition to thinking of Duchamp's art) in parallel with Dante's inferno or the myths of Persephone and the underworld; still, there's a jazzy feel to the swift and slow syncopations of the train.

A quick note on the use of the word "colored" to denote race. First off, at the time (for what it's worth) this was the most respectful term that could be used. Second, it has always struck me as an odd way of describing anyone since we are all colored are we not? No person lacks color (at least on the outside)– there are no colorless people (again, not on the outside.) When I was a little kid and people would use the world "colored" I always imagined purple or turquoise people and that sounded so exotic to me.

I'll let you explore this poem on your own but let me give you a bit of food for thought. First off, the common name for a railroad station is a terminal. Brood on that a bit and see if you don't find just a few more insights into what Williams is telling us about life. Second, what do you think he is saying about time, both musical and mortal? Are we not all fellow travelers in this life?

This poem puts me in mind of a scene from Terry Gilliam's movie "The Fisher King." It's Grand Central Station and Robin Williams character is following the woman he loves from afar. Here it The masthead pic is Grand Central Station in New York, where Gilliam filmed the dance.

Here's where we have talked about Williams before:

and here:

and here:

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