The Tense, Thrown Like a Switch

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Farley’s poems live in the present, the past and the future simultaneously, fully conscious of their unrest.

One version of the Atlantic tunnel is a technological miracle yet to take place, several decades and several trillion dollars in the future. Theoretically, this tunnel will operate like the Channel Tunnel, taking passengers and freight at hundreds or even thousands of miles an hour between Europe and North America. It’s all supposition, of course. No company is actively trying to build a tunnel. But imagine the cars have been built, the seats upholstered, the silverware in the dining car stocked. Imagine you are sitting on the sort of durable, bristled fabric useful for trains. You may be moving at 400 miles per hour, not that you could tell, in the fluorescent-lit darkness that makes the middle, the end and the beginning of the tunnel look the same. Here, with the weight of an ocean overhead, your vision narrowed to a single compartment speeding through the dark, you may look at your watch more often than usual.

The Atlantic Tunnel is the title of a set of collected poems from Paul Farley. He’s been publishing since 1998, tucking four collections under his belt between then and now. Like a curio shop, the contents of The Atlantic Tunnel are carefully curated, but out of order in chronology. Sequences are ordered by theme, not by date, so there are poems from The Boy From the Chemist Is Here to See You in 1998, The Ice Age in 2002, Tramp in Flames in 2006, and Field Recordings in 2009, not in that order, with a handful of new pieces added at the end. It is an appropriate arrangement for a poet obsessed with time.

Farley’s poems live in the present, the past and the future simultaneously, fully conscious of their unrest. In “The Lapse,” a poem about stop-motion film, he describes the trick of time that turns tiny skeleton figures into sword fodder for Jason and the Argonauts. In the original movie, the skeletons got about five minutes of screen time, which took Ray Harryhausen four and a half months to choreograph and complete. He acknowledges the skewing of time as radical: “something as simple as Edgerton’s milk splash/ stilled to an ivory coronet would do it,/ keep us quiet for hours as we learned to understand/ the howling gale we stood in.” Later in the poem, a similiar film technique records the complete decay of a sheep in seconds, the movie jumping when the bones collapse suddenly. But the speed of it, the “journey to nothing” on the part of Harryhausen’s figures and the poor animal, robs young Farley and his friends. The poet longs, now, for wide afternoons for his younger self: “Lying on our backs watching clouds/ with the slow Doppler of a plane being bowed across the sky./ Give us back the giant day. Give us back what’s ours.”

The tragedy is not aging, it’s the fact that the realness of an object cannot be separated from its inevitable decay. One poem, titled “Relic,” accounts only for a mouth, tooth by tooth: cavities, canals, crowns.

All this talk of the body and its decompositions could read as thanatophilic, but Farley’s charm is that he isn’t, at all. Rather, he attends to the matter. He is obsessed with tunnels, calendars, radios, maps, lightbulbs, phones, phone books and bus depots. As things to make us move or tell us how far to go, they are streetwise. They place us, in space or in time or in both, and require that we both ask and answer for ourselves where we are, and where we will go. The direction is less important than its notation. The big safe themes, Farley writes, “are there/ all around, forestalling what you were going to say./ A robust description of a cedarwood cigar box/ has grown so big it could now contain Cuba and history.” Thus, he skirts gloom in favor of presence. The box is the thing.

Walking along the Potomac the other day, I counted the hawks and other raptors I saw out over the river. (I counted five that day.) The interesting thing, when looking at a carnivore, is that one sees only the animal itself. In those five birds I could not see the long warm days lived by their prey in the grass, the songbirds collecting shed fur for their nests, the terror shrieks of rabbits. They were there, somewhat, rendered into energy, into fat, into the continued flight of the predator. But looking up I see only their wake, which is the silhouette of a red-shouldered hawk blacking out the sun.

Conceptually, the Atlantic tunnel is interesting because it would make an almost-straight line between the old and new worlds. The idea compels, with a romance that modern air travel has rendered nostalgic. In reality, the Atlantic tunnel—now so fantastic—would disappoint us. We would search its schedules on Travelocity while planning trips to somewhere more exciting. This might be dangerous, so much looking into the future. “Cash in your mattressed wads,” Farley writes. “They cease to be tender as of midnight.”

Xarissa Holdaway has written for The Awl, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Second Pass. She is generally easy to find via Google, in case you have the desire to email her. More from this author →