down among the old-
tall buildings that changed
the streets of other
and drumming, lit by
explosions of sparks
that harm no one
The title of Slow Trains Overhead, a collection of poems and stories by Reginald Gibbons, comes from a different passage in that poem, “Adams & Wabash.” The combination in a single volume of one of my favorite literary forms with the one I probably find most intimidating and least accessible made for an unusual but ultimately rewarding reading experience.
I’m rather a fan of regional literature, and literature that focuses on places I’ve lived or know well has been an interest for a long time. That provided, at least, one point of access to the poems in the collection. Knowing I had been to the place and seen the thing being described or alluded to gave a baseline of comprehension. But I’m still not very “good” at reading poems, whatever that might mean, and the fact that so many seemed to be on almost identical subjects or themes—isolation in the city, work, family, distance from nature—meant that what at first seemed beautiful or powerful eventually began to lose much of its force.
The stories, while not all equally good, were much more effective for me. Most are really more like vignettes, just a page or two describing a single scene. One of the more substantial, “A Car,” makes it to a whopping 4.5 pages, but seems to full encapsulate a city life of a type we’ve become familiar with: single woman, small dog, small job, small quotidian world. That dreary repetitiveness is broken briefly, and in a very small way, when she hears “the wheels of a car spinning, the engine racing, whining,” and knows it doesn’t belong to someone from her block but to someone “somehow dangerous. Maybe stoned or drunk.”
The stories of family, especially children, are less bleak, though always with a view to how badly parents want to protect their children against the world but can’t. And there are the urban curiosities, like “Avian Time,” about a museum’s bird specimen collection manager who would pick up the bodies of birds that had killed themselves flying into the glass wall of a convention center on the lake.
They have been flying along this same route for tens of thousands of years, and not yet has their thinking formulated this obstacle of the city that has appeared in the swift stroke of a hundred and fifty cycles of their migration.
I don’t competely hold with all of Gibbons’s implications about city life and the strange relationships among a city’s inhabitants, but they aren’t so far off from my own ideas either and his picture of Chicago hit many of the right notes for me.