The Innermost Voyager

Douglas Oliver

Jetliners climb above the middle air
of spiritual journeys: flying in dreams
is usually humanised and takes the shaman route
of older beliefs. Once, in a train derailment,
I bore my sense of self so lightly it yearned
for those middle heights. Probably, when dying,
we rise above and see nurses acting in perfect democracy.

We’ll not romanticise shamans; but whatever
our job or class there can always be some dream train
where we’re squashed in by fuzzy-featured companions;
and one is this other kind, a spirit-voyager:
think of a tree bole robed in furs, a wooden bear mask
that nearly speaks. For me, it’d be poets travelling
to a festival, a voice more ancient than ours among us.

We’re off to perform our poetry in a noble library,
lodging together, squabbling for bedrooms.
This one in the carriage really troubles us;
he’s this great trouble for cleverness,
one who looks as a bear might look if it were a god,
mouth as amused muzzle, head far too large,
blind eyes, great simpleton ears, his suit shaggy.

The carriage wobbles on its bogeys; we spit clever gossip,
exhibit taciturn domination, leftist talk of Gödel’s
theorem applied to politics: Fanon’s wretched
of the earth will be just that enigma resolved
in the higher social order to come: the talk
soars over famines and floods – hubris like a swank plane
gleaming in the clouds above human geographies.

We’re humped about by each other’s ambitions.
Frozen Hampshire fields pass by train windows;
there are multitudes of the impoverished
squatting like fir saplings on crusted snowfields,
yellowing sunset as in romance, the figures unmoving.
It’s supposed witty to say, ‘That view can be resolved
by reference to wider fields of snow, greater poverties.’

Blue-grey shadows mottle this covered heathland
as if a bear’s spoor led to whitened hill crests.
The snow’s both animal-warm and absolute-zero.
A voice from outside the field of vision, whether
beside us in the carriage or out there in the gliding,
has a warm Hampshire burr, for you perhaps it’s female,
for me, the uttermost countryman of my innermost country.

The voice tells how one evening no one will be safe from cold.
A tree on the line, a loud bang up front, carriage lights dim,
a slowing, windows freckle with sparks, a smell of burnt wood,
and the wrecked express skids four miles with charcoal in its paws.
Then train walls burr terribly but death would arrive
with slow riding and displacement of fear.
Poets would wish their voice warm and fit for such riding.