When I first saw this poem I almost didn’t read it due to its extreme length. (One of my friends has a “will not pay to watch” actors list; my semi-equivalent is the “super-long or too-freaky-looking-or-full-of-itself-in-my-instant-opinion poems list.) But the first stanza sucked me in with its reference to memory, and walls alive with light, and then I kept going all through the effortless length. It felt familiar to me in so many ways – the nature of memory, the unconquerability of childhood impressions, “all that captured, concentrated light.”
Penn Station: Fifty Years Gone
– Jacqueline Osherow
There must have been a train, a subway ride,
but what I remember is the palace
in between: its high glass walls alive with light
and so enticing I thought closed-in space
more open, even, than open air,
light the only presence in the concourse,
though I must have seen throngs of women there.
Wednesday was Ladies’ Day on the Pennsyl-
vania Railroad; women paid half fare
(a practice eventually declared illegal).
I was three or four and rode for free,
my unlucky sister stuck in school.
We did this often, my mother tells me—
Philly to Brooklyn in time for lunch—
and then the island on Eastern Parkway
where she sat with her mother on a bench
while I hopped from hexagon to hexagon,
examining the sidewalk, inch by inch,
for the secret of this new, compelling pattern
(molecule to petaled flower to star),
the quintessential feature of Brooklyn,
tightly fitted shapes nuzzling together
from Parkway pavement to bathroom floor.
Or did my notice of such things come after?
When we’d get there, as a family, by car,
the halfway mark in the Holland Tunnel
(whoever saw it first—always my sister—
awarded a nickel) arrival’s sentinel,
next Liberty from the Manhattan Bridge.
But even she—torch and all—could not annul
that more and more impossible assemblage
of wrought iron, granite, glass, and light
that gave me something of a sense of pilgrimage
a decade later in a window seat
on Amtrak, heading to a camp reunion.
My friends and I had arranged to meet
at the clock? information booth? in Penn Station,
then ride together to Valley Stream …
I’d be face-to-face with stored-up vision
(how much was memory? how much was dream?)
what for years conspired in me to nurture
the sort of intimate, fanatic claim
we make as children on what we adore
and though I didn’t know the terminology
my platonic ideal of architecture,
unaltered, really, to this very day:
openness corralled and sealed with light.
But on that day in autumn 1970,
I got off the train to find concrete
and crowds and trash and ugliness and smell.
I assumed that in the interim they’d built
a slapdash addition to my beautiful
(perhaps too good to use?) remembered space,
found my friends and convinced them all
to join—did we miss a train?—my wild-goose chase
until finally we asked a policeman,
who told us this was all there was
when we asked for the “main part” of Penn Station.
Perhaps I was thinking of Grand Central?
an easy subway ride, just go down
that stairway, ride one stop then take the shuttle …
But it was late; we had to reach Long Island
before the Sabbath (we were under the spell
of Jewish summer camp) so I abandoned
one dream for another. Adolescents
are flexible that way. And our weekend—
hectic and euphoric and intense—
turned my confusion at Penn Station
into a funny story, its disappointments
postponed for our reunion’s brief duration.
But on my train ride home, an acrid taste
pervaded everything: my initiation
into the recalcitrant mistrust
with which a bossy, noncompliant present
infiltrates and redesigns the past.
Still, I was, after all, an adolescent;
I had a world to change, a war to end,
and though I knew my vision wasn’t
of any other station, I abandoned
my newly defenseless memory—
though I would have liked to understand
where it had come from; perhaps TV?
But my childhood TV was black and white
and I could see pink stone against a shimmery
golden-yellow amplitude of light
extending in every known direction …
Only years later, as an undergraduate,
when the fate of Grand Central Station—
thanks to Jackie O’s gift for publicity—
became a topic of dinner conversation,
did I finally unravel my old mystery.
Jackie’s war cry was the demolition
of Penn Station in nineteen sixty-three!
I grabbed someone’s paper, in which Penn Station
was described as “great,” noble,” a “masterpiece,”
half-thrilled by this belated confirmation,
half-shamed at having betrayed my memories.
That light-struck little girl had not been wrong,
she and I the unsuspecting repositories
of the world’s lost treasure—all along
(there’s no overstating the world’s recklessness
with what’s irreplaceable) in our safekeeping—
and—or so it seemed—nowhere else.
Still, it was, at best, a Pyrrhic victory,
since there’d be no returning to my palace,
though I did have sightings: an illusory
flashing by me in The Palm Beach Story
(in those days, we saw movies in the theatre),
The Seven Year Itch, Strangers on a Train.
And then, a real find, outside a bookstore
in the used-books rack? remainders’ bin?
among the pages of photos in a cast-
off coffee-table book of old Manhattan:
wrought iron, stone and glass, possessed
by something more like sorcery than sun,
an image I suspect has long replaced
or perhaps just merged with? my childhood vision,
Berenice Abbott: Penn Station Interior.
Take a look, reader, it’s online.
(Perhaps I should have told you this before?)
You can even buy a print: an aura magical
enough to turn a person, even at four—
especially at four?—elegiacal
for at least another half century—
which explains the, for me, irresistible
allure of train stations—call it my history—
the more gargantuan and whimsical,
over the top, absurd, unnecessary
the more I love them: Antwerpen-Centraal
(Sebald’s Austerlitz), Milan, St. Pancras …
Forgive me, but, for all its grace, Grand Central
doesn’t have the lushness to redress
what turns out to be my great childhood loss.
The place—after all—is steeped in darkness:
too much travertine, too little glass.
And yet, reader, I still thrill to go there,
famished as I am for any trace
of the notion that arrival or departure—
anyone’s at all—is apt occasion
for unstinting outpourings of grandeur.
And there it is, reader—it’s not Penn Station:
Interior by Berenice Abbott I see
but an entire universe’s concentration
on the daunting task of welcoming me—
Jackie!—after my first ride on a train,
which—oh how memory breeds memory—
must have had a caboose, a little red one—
like the one in the story in the Golden Book
my mother surely read me on that train
(she made it an adventure to be stuck
at a railway crossing: the caboose! look!).
For a minute, I imagine she walked me back
to see the caboose on our train in New York—
but only freight trains had cabooses; wrong again.
Oh reader, forgive me, the nostalgic
wasn’t my intended destination
but what can I do? I’ve been derailed.
I wanted to tell you about Penn Station—
so magical a place even a child
would claim it as her private, secret palace—
how I once inhabited a world
so benevolent, its public space
seemed to cherish every human being.
I honestly haven’t thought of that caboose
for nearly fifty years (it wasn’t among
the Golden Books I read to my own children;
perhaps they didn’t reprint it?). I wasn’t expecting
to be blindsided by my mother all of a sudden,
but she had a way of singling out
anything she thought might give her children
even a brief instant of delight,
must have reveled in my private store of marvels,
though I was sure I kept them secret.
She’d present the simplest things as miracles
(not that she could have known they’d turn elusive).
Have I managed to do that for my girls?
What will they half recall, half try to prove
in fifty years? With what tenacious
if hazy spectacle they’ve caught a glimpse of
(one I likely see as commonplace)
will I—or, rather, my memory—be entwined?
Just let it be wide-open and gratuitous,
evocative of something like the kind
of—what shall I call it?—solicitude?
that made me think the world had been designed
with only me in mind, my childhood
a string of wonders. With each fresh thing—
a stray leaf clinging to a piece of fruit,
a twin yolk in an egg, a cardinal idling
in our neighbor’s birdbath: my mother’s voice,
so urgent and excited we’d come running.
Back from the laundry, a pillow case
with a tiny Chinese character inside its hem
was bounty from an over-brimming universe
with a prize (Cracker Jack writ large) in every item.
No doubt it was she who pointed out
the way Penn Station’s granite walls would gleam
in all that captured, concentrated light,
the roof of windows letting in the sky’s
wide-open pathways, the infinite
just one among a host of possibilities
in a world so enthralling, so magnanimous
all you had to do was open your eyes
and you’d be swept up in a fast embrace
of deft if momentary harmonies,
an eleventh-hour glimpse of iron, stone, and glass,
an ultimatum from paradise.
For more information on Jacqueline Osherow, please click here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/jacqueline-osherow
For those of you interested in poetic form, this poem is written in terza rima, a series of three-line stanzas with a (very loose, in this example) aba, bcb rhyme scheme.
My blog: alisonmcghee.com/blog