The Northeast Corridor

The bar in the commuter station steams
like a ruin, its fourth wall open
to the crowd and the fluttering timetables.
In the farthest corner, the television
crackles a torch song and a beaded gown.
She is my favorite singer, dead when I was born.
And I have been waiting for hours for a train,
exhausted between connections to small cities,
awake only in my eyes finding shelter
in the fluttering ribbon of shadow
around the dead woman singing on the screen.
Exhaustion is a last line of defense
where time either stops dead or kills you.
It teaches you to see what your eyes see
without questions, without the politics
of living in one city, dying in another.

How badly I would like to sleep now
in the shadows beside real things or beside
things that were real once, like the beaded gown
on the television, like the debut
of a song in New York in black and white
when my parents were there. I feel sometimes
my life was used up before I was born.
My eyes sear backwards into my head
to the makeshift of what I have already seen
or heard described or dreamed about, too weary
not to envy the world its useless outlines.
Books of photographs of New York in the forties.
The dark rhombus of a window of a train
rushing past my train. The dark halo
around the body of a woman I love
from something much farther than a distance.

The world is insatiable. It takes your legs off,
it takes your arms and parades in front of you
such wonderful things, such pictures of warm houses
trellised along the sides with green so deep
it is like black air, only transparent,
of women singing, of trains of lithium
on the awakening body of a landscape
or across the backdrop of an old city
steaming and high-shouldered as the nineteen-forties.
The world exhausts everything except my eyes
because it is a long walk to the world
begun before I was born. In the far corner
the dead woman bows off stage. The television   
crumples into a white dot as the last
train of the evening, my train, is announced.
I lived in one place. I want to die in another.
“The Northeast Corridor,” by Donald Revell from New Dark Ages (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). © 1990 by Donald Revell and reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press,
Source: New Dark Ages (Wesleyan University Press, 1990)

Writing Ideas

  1. Revell’s poem is set in a train station bar and even includes details about the bar’s television. Try writing a poem set in a similar space that treats a similar theme: waiting. Like Revell, use details from the scene around you but also try to represent how the waiting mind thinks, remembers, and responds to its environment. See also Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.”
  2. What is the mood of Revell’s poem? Think about how he achieves this: circle or underline any words or images that contribute to the dominant mood. Now, try “reversing” those words or images. What does Revell’s poem sound or feel like now?
  3. Pick up where Revell’s poem ends: using his last line as your first line, write a poem that either considers one place where you have “lived” or “another” place you’d like to.

Discussion Questions

  1. Circle or underline any words that get used more than once in the poem. Which is the poem’s most used word? Second most used? Third? How does the recycling of certain words contribute to this poem’s mood or tone?
  2. Though the opening of this poem situates us firmly in a place—“the bar in the commuter station”—its lines meander much farther afield. What other places does this poem take us to, both real and imagined? How does it do so? What cues (in the form of words, syntax, images) alert you to these movements?
  3. Different types of “seeing” occur throughout the poem. Isolate every instance of “eyes” or vision: what kinds of sight does the poem want us to think about?

Teaching Tips

  1. Ask students to think about or research Revell’s title. Have them gather images of both “the Northeast Corridor” and perhaps train stations along it (including Grand Central). As Stephen Burt notes in his guide, these early poems of Revell’s are “Rust Belt poems: poems of intense dissatisfaction … with a built environment that seems to speak, constantly, of empty choices and exhaustion, a place where all words and all structures point grayly and insistently to the past.” After students have gathered images, ask them to think about the poem’s relationship to these visual representations of despair, environmental exhaustion, and collapse. How does Revell write blight? How does the poem link environment to individual consciousness? Lead a discussion on the politics and environment of students’ own communities. What kinds of buildings, landscapes, and urban or rural decay do they see on their way to school or in their own neighborhoods? Have students photograph their community. Ask them to think about the connection between environment and memory, landscape and self, as they compose poems that, like Revell’s, demonstrate that “location’s inescapable.”
  2. In his poem guide, Burt notes that Revell’s style has consistently changed: “To read Revell’s best poems in the order in which he wrote them,” Burt notes, “is to partake of the pleasure of self-reinvention, and to watch a man’s outlook rotate 180 degrees.” Ask students to research Revell’s career and compile a brief annotated bibliography of his books with example poems from each collection. What do they notice about his changes in style, form, or content? Use this exercise as a springboard for a larger discussion about development as a writer. If this class happens late in the year or semester, perhaps have students exchange groups of poems that include “early,” “mid,” and “late” examples of their work. What development or changes do people see happening in their own work and the work of others? How does one’s style change? Why is it important (or not important) to think about such changes? What changes and growth in their own writing do they hope or expect to happen? Students might write letters to their future writer-selves; or compose a review from the future of their Collected Works. Bring in examples of Collected Works so that students can trace changes and growth across a variety of poets.
More Poems by Donald Revell