Sour Grapes (1921)
William Carlos Williams

Overture to a Dance of Locomotives

Men with picked voices chant the names 
of cities in a huge gallery: promises 
that pull through descending stairways 
to a deep rumbling. 

                              The rubbing feet 
of those coming to be carried quicken a 
grey pavement into soft light that rocks 
to and fro, under the domed ceiling, 
across and across from pale 
earthcolored walls of bare limestone. 

Covertly the hands of a great clock 
go round and round! Were they to 
move quickly and at once the whole 
secret would be out and the shuffling 
of all ants be done forever. 

A leaning pyramid of sunlight, narrowing 
out at a high window, moves by the clock: 
disaccordant hands straining out from 
a center: inevitable postures infinitely 
Porters in red hats run on narrow platforms. 
This way ma'am! 
                          --important not to take 
the wrong train! 
                        Lights from the concrete 
ceiling hang crooked but-- 
                                        Poised horizontal 
on glittering parallels the dingy cylinders 
packed with a warm glow--inviting entry-- 
pull against the hour. But brakes can 
hold a fixed posture till-- 
                                      The whistle! 

Not twoeight. Not twofour. Two! 

Gliding windows. Colored cooks sweating 
in a small kitchen. Taillights-- 

In time: twofour! 
In time: twoeight! 

--rivers are tunneled: trestles 
cross oozy swampland: wheels repeating 
the same gesture remain relatively 
stationary: rails forever parallel 
return on themselves infinitely. 
                                            The dance is sure.  

I am reminded deeply of an experience I had when barely six from my own personal travels. Our family passed ofen through Penn Station for a many houred lay over on our way north to Maine to visit my grandparents . It was in between moves from Taiwan to Georgia.

Both heartsick and aware for the very first time of what it was like to leave friends behind. I was struck with awe watching a large clock keep time above the epitome of a teeming life force passing through. A young man perched upon a chair and did something that delights my little girl heart even as I recall it.

All alone off in his own cosmos he whistled a tune, pure and sweet. The notes bounced off the walls and filled the station with bursts of birdsong. I watched his lips in careful curiosity, how slack they were and he allowed them to move up and down his face as if they had a will of their own. He stood up and sauntered down the walk way hands shoved casually in his pockets, hat brim at a rakish angle in a rumpled white shirt and creased blue pants that bespoke hours of travel.

It began with You Are My Sunshine and a tip of his hat with a smile; a nod revealing coppery red hair that stood up on end; he wearily ran his fingers through it. There was a briefcase at his side. Yet through his happy tune I saw an aerialist spangled in close fitting garments sailing across the rails with derring do as his notes danced upon the air while people marched to a different tune in stark contrast. People spoke in lowered voices of rhythmic repetition. A raucous mess amidst flashes of red images reflected off of gray as it all rattled along in a universal ballet.

I could feel the whistler's small town coziness sink into my soul with joy profound; he was pouring fourth an astonishing cascade of warbles, bell tones, tremolos and trills. I have never met anyone who could whistle like that since.

Soon the passer bys fell silent as he performed a Faustian opera I could feel his joyful insanity, its life affirming humor was palliative. His art was the translation of music through his very soul. Indeed inside the auditorium as the mouth music swooped and dove, sometimes hollow and shimmering. The audience seemed to drift about, smiling and bouncing gently on toes, then joining in whistling like starlings settling down for the night.

Overture to a Dance of Locomotives is a prologue to adventure. With the chaos of the modern urban civilization clanging about, through Williams' "eye," he paints for us with his words concepts and movements clearly related to the fascination that the metropolis held for him, it is a likely possibility that it may have been in Penn Station from where Mr. Williams. received his inspiration as his rounds as a doctor took him through there many times.

The verbal gestures of William's overture convey movement as "covertly the hands of a great clock go round and round!", the dingy cylinders of the train, a whistle, and rails are all poised horizontal as William Carlos Williams employs his trademark painterly technique and begins by attracting the readers attention to the intended action, a train paused in the last moments, waiting for the Conductor to shout All a board!


Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

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