reviewed by MC Hyland
In his most recent full-length book of poems, 2008’s Prairie Style, C.S. Giscombe writes, “location’s what you come to; it’s the low point, it usually repeats.” To read Giscombe’s work is to be confronted with this repetition—in language, in ideas, in well-traveled scenery that slowly releases meaning from a fog of initially undifferentiated trees or corn. These forms of repetition shape our world in ways beyond the merely sonic or conceptual. Take, for example, Giscombe’s 1998 book, Giscome Road, which attempts to recover the Jamaican-Canadian explorer John Robert Giscome by visiting and meditating on the various parts of eastern British Columbia that bear his name:
Giscome Canyon & the Giscome Rapids on the Fraser, Giscome, B.C. in the Cariboo, Giscome Portage between the watersheds, the Giscome Portage Historical Site, the Giscome Portage Historical Society, real Giscome Road from Old Cariboo Hwy in Prince George
This repeated name—almost a repetition of Giscombe’s own name—marks the landscape of a certain section of east-central British Columbia. It’s a trace left in language of this possible kinsman’s movement through the frontier over a century and a half ago. The name, “Giscome,” repeated this way, becomes a refrain, a ripple on the surface of the river of language. And like a ripple, it marks a quality of the depths below it—here, the name shows a counter-current to the frontier mythology of the heroic white settlement of the Canadian west. In the travel memoir Into and Out of Dislocation, Giscombe writes:
Now, there’s something black people, or American black people of certain generations, say: we say that no matter where you go, no matter how far, no matter to what unlikely extreme, no matter what country, continent, ice floe, or island you land on, you will find someone else black already there... And maybe white people do something similar but on a grander scale, make a similar claim but one so unironically tied to civic identity and national consciousness as to be invisible, as to require no particular thought or self-consciousness: the local case in point is that most histories—casual and published—of B.C. start by mentioning the same fact, the same luminous detail, they all start off with Alexander Mackenzie being the first white man to enter what is now the province.
Within this context, C.S. Giscombe’s repetition of John R. Giscome’s name is an insistent assertion of black presence within a whitewashed historical narrative. If “the name’s the last thing to disappear,” then the name might also be the talisman of this person’s presence, the thread that can be worried and unspooled into a trail leading back to the trail-finder, the man who, with fellow West Indian explorer Henry McDame, comprised half of the first party “through that route which had never been traversed by any others than Indians” (Giscome Road 7, Dislocation 9).
I think what I’m trying to get at here is the way that repetition is a manifestation, in language, of the most striking quality in Giscombe’s work: its obsessional return, over decades, to the same ground; its insistence on the fruitfulness of revisiting, unspooling, digging. His writing, both in poetry and in prose, appeals to the fruitfulness of “worrying,” both in the sense of “touching or disturbing something repeatedly” and in the sense that a dog might “worry” a smaller animal: snatching it, shaking it from bared teeth, rendering the meat of matters. While Giscombe’s voice is not tonally “worried”—more often than not, it’s assured, inquisitive, lyric—there is something dogged in his burrowing into material that bears new fruit with each examination. Over the course of a 40-year career, he has developed a strikingly coherent body of work in part through a strategy of reworking: the same places, characters, concepts, and words come back across books, so that while any number of books might serve as a place to start reading his work, the most rewarding experience comes from reading across or through several books.
While for a first-time reader of Giscombe, the intensity of landscape detail in Ohio Railroads might prove challenging, the place-names it invokes resonate across his writing, coming to seem mythic through the defamiliarized familiarity that repeated reading can lend—when Ohio Railroads sent me back through a few of his other books, I found myself starting to imagine Giscombe’s Dayton (like his Downstate Illinois and his Canada) along the lines of Olson’s Gloucester, or Williams’s Paterson. I’d already read about Dayton’s West Side, V. A. Hospital, and Wolf Creek in a poem (“Home Avenue”) in Prairie Style and in Into and Out of Dislocation; what happens in Ohio Railroads isn’t so much the emergence of new subject matter as an attempt to geographically, historically, and personally contextualize scenes we’ve glimpsed in passing elsewhere in Giscombe’s work.
Ohio Railroads, an essay published as a chapbook (let’s have more of these, please!), is, in some ways, exactly what its title suggests: an informative tract on the history and geography of the railroads in and around Giscombe’s childhood home of Dayton, Ohio. The essay is both encyclopedic and eccentric: it proceeds spatially (following a railroad line through or out of Dayton and commenting on what it passes), but also associatively (leaping from story to story on the basis of shared tropes). The first of these tactics allows topics in the essay to precipitate from anecdotes about towns across southwestern Ohio, although these stories often lead back to Dayton, suggesting that social conditions may manifest differently in different towns or cities, but still rise from common roots. For example, following the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Spirit of St. Louis through the towns of Xenia and Yellow Springs, Giscombe stops to comment: “Yellow Springs is known as ‘the most miscegenated place in America’ but in Dayton, according to stories, it was common, as early as the 1940s, to see Negroes walking downtown with their white girlfriends” (16). The anecdote suggests that narratives of racial mixing often try, unsuccessfully, to contain the phenomenon to one location, and so to frame it as uncommon or unnatural; Giscombe undercuts these attempts by moving, over the course of this short anecdote, back and forth along the railroad lines that cross and radiate from Dayton.
The essay moves not only in space, but also between levels of attention, from the personal to the societal, so that a family story can function as commentary and segue to a sociological description of Dayton’s racial segregation:
She—my mother—had come to Dayton in 1949 with her new husband, when she was twenty-five, from St. Louis, where she’d taught in the public schools. She had a Master’s degree in Education from the University of Michigan; in Ann Arbor she had lived in a residence hall and some of the white women there, her fellow graduate students, asked her to help them in their petition to force the handful of black students to eat together consistently, to take each meal at the same cafeteria table, not realizing that she was black. In Dayton, from the 1940s until the mid-1970s, black people lived west of the Great Miami River, the water that forms the western limit of downtown; 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.
What both of these examples should make clear is that the book’s central, if indirectly made, argument is about how American geography manifests the country’s history of both conquest and slavery. Or, more to the point, manifests and continues the history of slavery’s long epilogue: unequal opportunities doled out or withheld along racial lines, a string of both large-scale injustices and small violences like the one Giscombe’s mother experienced at the University of Michigan. The conquest of North America is a more distant past in Ohio Railroads: the region’s largely uprooted or eradicated native population is most visible at the level of town and county names, still, in Giscombe’s words, “the last thing to disappear.” Two cities in Ohio (Tippecanoe and Tipp City) are named for “William Henry Harrison’s 1811 victory over Tecumseh’s Confederation at the Battle of Tippecanoe, in present-day Indiana”; Giscombe notes in an elegaic aside on the story of Tecumseh “in the twenty-first century, one almost never sees an Indian in Dayton or anywhere in southwest Ohio” (12, 48).
It is on the topic of racial segregation—a segregation that has been naturalized into landscape—that Giscombe’s attentive eye and clear voice are most acute. At the same time that Giscombe celebrates the texture of black American life (the career of Dayton poet Paul Laurence Dunbar; the slaves Edward and Lucy Page who successfully sued for their freedom after being brought to the free state of Ohio; his father’s medical practice and other black Dayton businesses from funeral homes to barbecue stands; detailed descriptions of Dayton’s West Side), he is clear on its externally-imposed economic and geographic limits. These limits are especially haunting in the case of two of Dayton’s most famous sons, high school friends Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Orville Wright. While Wright is famous as a father of aviation (his home is a historic site in Oakwood—the one neighborhood Giscombe singles out as without black residents in 2008), the poet Dunbar, the son of former slaves, “worked as an ‘indoor aviator’—an elevator operator—in the Callahan Building at Third Street and Main, downtown,” where he “sold copies of Oak and Ivy to his passengers,” his literary career shaped by and intertwined with the kinds of work available to black men in the Dayton of his time (19). The stark contrast of these two fates—the deflation of the title “indoor aviator” when set next to the white school friend flying an actual airplane—speaks to the ways that structures of white supremacy give (to some) and take away (from others).
Giscombe presents Dunbar’s and Wright’s stories together and without editorial comment. In many ways, this lack of editorial comment is one of this essay’s most interesting features. When I described Ohio Railroads as “encyclopedic,” I could have been speaking about its tone: the writing, even when it speaks to painful realities, is neutral, declarative, calm, matter-of-fact. And it does speak to painful realities, both societal and personal: the book is framed by the story of a drive to the East Third Street railroad bridge the day after Giscombe’s mother’s death. This willed neutrality, or affective blankness, is surprising, and can make the text difficult to penetrate. Though densely packed with geographic descriptions, anecdotes, biographical details, and images, Ohio Railroads shares a certain ineffable quality with Giscombe’s poems, while mostly eschewing their lyricism and the breathing space that the white page often creates in his work. When, on page 41 of 52, the essay breaks into a page-and-a-half-long lineated poem, its short lines scattered across the page, it’s hard to escape the sensation of having just driven out of a midwestern city into the countryside around it—of watching the sky and the landscape open out suddenly around you. At the same time, the poem—which narrates a dream about that East Third Street bridge—seems able to leave these open spaces because the reader, having been deeply immersed in the poem’s historical, geographic, and personal references, can read it as not simply a dream of stalling out on a railroad bridge, but as a complex signification of submerged contents and contexts. This moment is the heart of Ohio Railroads, which illuminates the thinking of this important poet by showing just how deep the waters run beneath even the most sparse and suggestive of his poems.