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Poetry that Travels

One of my favorite things to remember are trains. Somewhere in India, top bunk, spying on my fellow passengers from above: the Chaiwala with his tiers of silver tea pots, an Assamese gamer who’d gotten on three days before me, an older couple tucking their shoes between their suitcases. Like a quick inhale, I feel the moment when my edges lift away— I dissolve, spilling over the edge of my bunk, washing through the cabin and out the gaps between the cars. And I remember my other favorite thing: I was born as me, but I could have just as easily been born as you, as her, as them.

How random! How delightful. After years of stacking up an Identity in building blocks, all you need is a rumbling train car to knock it down, to remind you that you are—thank god—no one in particular.

This was my meditation practice for years— take-offs, overnight bus rides, being on the move. My life used to be woven of these moments, just enough vibration and forward motion to keep my ego in check, to remind me of my essential connection to other humans and to the world around me. I used to write poems about this stuff.

Last year, I wrote a ten-part poem about the chestnut trees in my garden. The chickens made several appearances, too. There are many jokes to be made about this, not least because I turned thirty-five in the process. No more adventure, just bird feces.

Unless it’s not really all that different. The chestnut trees are certainly at least as dynamic as a train in India. The other morning—late summer here in the Southern Hemisphere—dozens of spiky husks appeared throughout the branches, still green, a month or two from their inevitable fall. They hadn’t been there the day before, or at least I hadn’t seen them. And I remembered stomping on last year’s husks and catching the chestnuts as they shot out. And I thought maybe these are actually the same chestnuts: roasted, digested, composted, and grown again.

That’s the fun of poetry. We can always go someplace strange—we can still melt into the world, because of the constant transformation going on around us. That travel high is not currently available, but we can get our fix in other ways.

What about you? Do you feel the same about movement? What happens to you when you’re in motion? What changes in you when you’re sitting in a tin can, far above the world? And what about when you stand still?

Of course, the poetry of travel is not all about the self, or lack thereof— it is a reservoir of stories, a feast for our endless fascination with the lives of others. Let’s remember those stories together, that time you sat next to a man with a chicken on a backcountry bus. (See? Chickens are everywhere.) Let’s find those stories now, in spite of news cycles that suck the humanity out of them. We’ll mine the news for the strange, the specific, the embodied; we’ll put to good use the technology that connects us across oceans and travel as best we can.

Because we poets are the original, ancient news reporters, with power and responsibility in our gaze. Let’s melt into the world and see what we find. I look forward to taking this trip with you.

Book here for Rebecca Levi’s course Poetry that Travels, which consists of 5 fortnightly sessions on Thursdays 7–9pm, and starts on 13 May 2021 on Zoom.

Image Credit: Caroline Selfors

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