Mourning and the Construction of Place: A Review of C.S. Giscombe’s Ohio Railroads

Cover-Ohio-RailroadsThe intergenre poetic text Ohio Railroads, by C.S. Giscombe, is a long poem in essay form split into two parts; first, a topographical “map” of the post-slavery North and second, a lyric poem.  Both dreamscapes are interpersed by elements of memoir, rooted in the author’s memory of a dream in which one of his parents died and the other, in response, sent forward a warning in the persona of the departed one.   The exact nature of this work brings to mind the genres in which memoir, specifically grief memoirs, backlight another, more historical or textual project.  Blink and you’ll miss it; whistle while you work, categorize and “map,” while you mourn,  and the dagger-cut and heart-rending loss, as specific as, say, place, the socio-emotional geography of the heart, will lessen, or fade away?  The details that make a beloved beloved, in life, and memorty—the grain, as Barthes says, of their voice—set in bas relief to the abstraction of geography, and history, as recounted in narrative, rather than place.

Place is an abiding interest for Giscombe, something explored in earlier books like Here, Giscome Road, and Prairie Style.  Here, the deixis of “home,” is accompanied by maps, traditionally serving not only as topographical orientation but markings of territory, ownership, gentrified division of demographic populations, and land:  in this case, a history of black Dayton.  Growing up in the west side of Dayton, Giscombe traces its changes from the 1830s, when African-Americans were living east of the Miami river, but slowly moving as the city expanded from the 1940s until the mid-1970s, when black people lived west of the Great Miami River.

Framed by his mother’s 2008 death in Dayton, where the reader might expect backstory or narrative details of her life, she instead receives details and facts:  maps, dates, place names, mention of Giscombe’s family members and local figures, with a page and a half of poetry.

The opening sections parse, geographically, black Dayton and “big Ohio” (its mythologies of settlement and migration, heroes, and weather systems), and are rife with dates, crossroads, streets, and names, as if being able to pinpoint an exact location of a cataclysmic event, and its recurrence in memory, could somehow alleviate grief.

References to his mother’s death abound are interlaced throughout.  The book’s opening line:  “Having dreamt years previously of seeing my mother’s death falling, indistinguishable from rain, on a railroad bridge at the eastern end of Dayton downtown business district, I went out purposely on the day after she did die—the 3rd of August 2008, her death having occurred on the 2nd—to see the bridge itself on East Third Street.”

Other lyrical elements, amid this backdrop of loss, are resonant for their contraditions:  in Section 7, there is a description of “Tecumseh,” a prophet/soldier born “near Springfield,” or “near Xenia,” whose name meant “Shooting Star.”  This passage in particular highlights the doubled meaning of this name, which, in addition to alluding to the Biblical “Son of the Morning Star” (Lucifer/Satan), also means “panther-lying-in-wait,” and “crouching lion.”

Ohio Railroads traces the movement of trains, as an industrial rhythm and known quanta more reliable, as a method of delivery, than, say, horses, in modern life.  “In 2008 the Dayton railroads continued to operate along right-of-ways that had been planned and grade and built into Dayton or through Dayton in the latter half of the 19th century.”  The changing railroad landscape, many tracks since disappeared, often stands in for a change in a post-industrial city as a whole.

X marks the spot, as the Railroad Crossing sign indicates:  the text involves trains, train tracks, train crossings, and train engines, a form of tranportation once designed for people, and now goods.  “In the 1960s there were many trains each day, both freight and passenger....In the midst of  West Side business on Third Street the trains looked slightly out of scale; ‘Tuscan Red’ was the Pennsylvania’s passenger color—it was a dusky flat red on the sides of the ‘bulldog nose’ locomotives and the coaches.”

Just as oral history of J.F.K.’s shooting is transmitted through physical deixis (the oft-repeated question, “Where were you when you heard?”), the speaker of Ohio Railroads reminds us that memory is not a linear line, but a loop, like a railroad, with its own form of curvature, acceleration, and slowing.  Speaking of circumlocution, parsed here are not just places, but landmarks:  The Pennsylvania Railroad, the “Big Four Route” (the Cleveland, Cincinatti, Chicago, and St. Louis Railway), and the black colleges of Xenia (Central State and Wilburforce University).

Amid the many references to the speakers geneology and scholars of mixed race (Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frederick Douglass, W.E. DuBois), the topos of the book emerges:  memory follows the rhythm, and circumlocution, of a train, and yet the indelible mark of grief, like the idea of home, and its geographical coordinates, remains.



Virginia Konchan is the author of Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press), and a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (forthcoming, Noctuary Press).  Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The Believer,  and The New Republic her criticism in Boston Review and Jacket2, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly, Joyland, and Requited, among other places.   Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Montreal.