I was flicking once again through the Down At The Santa Fe Depot anthology of more than fifty years ago when I settled to read the calm, confident poems provided by DeWayne Rail, who was then a young teacher in his mid-twenties.
Rail, who died a couple of years ago, was a fine writer with a clear eye for detail. In the poems I have seen, he reflected on life in the countryside of south-eastern Oklahoma where he was born, in a house built by his grandfather, and where he was raised for the first eight years of his life. Even after the family moved to Fresno, California, his father could not settle and they would return to the fields around a place he lists as Round Prairie, which google maps simply identifies as a road to the east of Potato Hills and to the west of Mountain View Retreat and Kritter Holler Cabin.
The short biographical notes in Down At The Santa Fe Depot are helpful, still. “We had given up being poor farmers to become poor labourers, and for the next three or four years we worked in the cotton fields, peach orchards, and vineyards around Fresno, in the hopeful way that poor people sometimes have, to save money. We saved enough money to return to Oklahoma and fail at farming in 1956. We spent a long summer working in Fresno, and we saved enough money to return to Oklahoma and fail at farming again in 1957. Finally, we settled in Fresno with that feeling of perpetual discontent…”
Rail’s writing is grounded in and built on these experiences. His style is clean and clear, confident and modest. It’s as if he has no yearning to impress. In the best possible sense, he is easy to read. One of the best of the early poems is Going Home Again/ Poem For My Father: “Nothing here seems to welcome my return,/ the dark and weeded fields, those dying trees./ Walking this ground, I see how things have turned.// Ten years ago I played here in this yard./ With sticks for mules, I mimicked every move/ my father made behind that rusting plow.”
He creates/ recreates the sense of place, or more accurately, of an isolated farming family battling to scrape some kind of living against the odds. It made me think of how much our upbringing roots our poetry, of how far we really travel. Although I have lived all my life in the English Midlands, as have most of my ancestors these last three or four hundred years, my working life was carried out on the move, which offered another perspective, of what it is like for those whose life consists of leaving, of going, of shifting landscapes, of life among strangers with their own histories.
For many years it was this life on the move that seemed to dominate my work but as I get older I find the sense of a home, of the ghosts of childhood and of a more distant past before I was here, comes to the surface more often, if only to provide a balance. Perhaps this is why renewing my acquaintance with the poems I have by DeWayne Rail has been so fulfilling – and has led me to find out more about him.
He remained in Fresno, teaching at the city college for thirty years, writing stories, poems, non-fiction, enjoying his family, interested in birding, gardening, chess, and playing the guitar. It sounds like a life quietly, honestly, fulfilled.
I found what seems an amateur recording of a reading from a ‘live performance in 1984’ on youtube, and an interesting 1999 interview for The Cortland Review by a person named Muffy Bolding, in which his sense of fun emerges – essential in a poet, I’d say, in a world where so many take themselves so very seriously – as well as his intelligence.
To quote from Bolding’s excellent interview, he said when asked about his methods of writing: “I really need coffee nearby and a nice cup. You can’t write beautiful poems while drinking from an ugly cup.” I’m with him there. One thing sure to put me in a negative mood is being served coffee in one of those horrible cardboard or worse, plastic, cups. The coffee’s usually scalded and likely to burn your mouth if you so much as sip it in the first half-hour of its existence.
More seriously, when he was asked if poetry might have lost its edge by pandering to literary self-interest groups – Bolding’s words, not mine, citing feminism, culturalism, and victimism – he said: “The ‘isms are pretty boring whether you encounter them in ersatz poetry, in politics or in conversation.” Yes, with him again.
The third quote I’d like to extract is also near to my heart, to my view of what poetry can do if you treat it with respect. “I do think art leads us to better places and to better versions of our unfinished selves.”
It seems to me that’s something worth striving for.
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