The C&O Canal, Reviewed by Michael Leong

co-canalThe C&O Canal

E-chapbook by Francis Raven
Publishing Genius, 2009
32 pages

Reviewed by Michael Leong

Canals and their locks, aqueducts and other “works of art” (as the canal engineers called them) are the ancient castles of the New World.

—The American Canal Society

In his 1866 The Hudson, From The Wilderness to the Sea, popular American historian Benson Lossing wrote: “Unlike the rivers of the elder world, famous in the history of men, the Hudson presents no grey and crumbling monuments of the ruder civilisations of the past…It can boast of no rude tower or mouldering wall, clustered with historical associations that have been gathering around them for centuries.” Indeed, 19th Century American painters and poets could contemplate neither the picturesque decay nor the pathos of “rude” and antique structures as easily as their European counterparts, but now, almost a decade into the 21st Century, the “American ruin” is becoming a fascinating subject for writers and artists. Arthur Drooker’s photography book American Ruins (Merrell, 2007) is a case in point as is G.C. Waldrep’s fascinating chapbook The Batteries (New Michigan Press, 2005) which was inspired by decommissioned naval batteries on the Marin Headlands (they are currently a part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area).

We can now add to this list Francis Raven’s The C&O Canal which, in its chapbook length, seems so much like a modernist epic in miniature, a Williams-esque foray into local history. This slim documentary text begins by remarking that “we have very few American ruins; we have Native American ruins (like Mesa Verde) and houses of famous people that are preserved (like Monticello) but very few actual European-American ruins.” Raven’s interest lies not, per Lossing, in the “historical associations” derived from remote civilizations but rather in a more recent history of American commerce and industry that, while receded from public memory, is still a significant part of our inheritance.

Although Raven was impressed by how the C&O Canal—short for The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, a project begun in 1828 to link Georgetown and Cumberland along the unnavigable Potomac River—“looks so much like Roman and European ruins,” he does not aestheticize the canal’s structures with a 19th Century gaze despite the National Park Service website’s observation that “the masonry parts [of the canal, now a National Historic Park] …were termed ‘works of art’ in the canal company’s documents.” In Raven’s poem, we aren’t offered detailed, ekphrastic-like descriptions of the canal based on first hand observation—instead, much of our knowledge of the canal comes from statistical lists. We learn about the mule-powered barges that lurched from

Cumberland to Georgetown:

4-5 days

2-3 mules
6 hour shifts

crew of 5

We learn about the “prism” shape of the canal as well as the astronomical cost of the project:

Engineers final report:

Surface: 40 ft. wide
Bottom: 28 ft. wide

4 ft. deep

“totaling $22,275,427.69” //

One of the primary impulses of The C&O Canal is to critique America’s fetishism of “free trade”—that desideratum that animated the construction of the canal—as well as to warn us about the tricky issues surrounding technology and obsolescence; in 1842, the B&O Railroad rendered the canal obsolete when it reached Cumberland eight years before the canal was completed. Considered by some a spectacular failure of engineering, the C&O Canal may be considered the troubled brother to the triumphant Brooklyn Bridge, a structure in which Hart Crane found his symbol for the mystical synthesis of America. As opposed to Crane’s sublime “One arc synoptic,” Raven writes of a “tether…[of] narrow hope / in times of change” and the grave tone throughout his poem reflects our current economy’s dire state.

If Raven doesn’t rely on sensuous detail, neither does he employ the subjective “I” as the poem’s centripetal and organizing principle. Engaging the larger historical and institutional forces outside of the self, he invokes the collective “we” to address the body politic:

// we are not just us
we belong to institutions
we belong to country
we are owned

by methods of carrying

While The C&O Canal importantly reminds us of the infrastructures on which we depend, the risk of this kind of public (and pedagogic) poetry is that it can sound too abstracted from the particular, and the reachings for aphoristic wisdom and judgement can come across as forced. But when the rhythm and rhetoric is right, Raven can nail such wisdom with epigrammatic accuracy such as in this nimble use of antanaclasis: “under the spoils system / things spoil.”

In certain stretches, I sensed a flatness and homogeneity of tone and thought that this might be a work-in-progress that could be thickened and further striated (à la Williams’ Paterson) by incorporating heterogeneous sources like newspaper articles or civic documents.

At its best, The C&O Canal achieves a streamlined clarity, a kind of Objectivist sincerity:

the sides of a canal
are its heart

without the sides
there would be

to hold
what flows

I particularly like this last tercet which neatly holds within it lines of one iamb each—and here we have the implicit argument that form itself constitutes the “heart” of the poem. “[T]he sides of a canal” also call to mind the double virgules (//) that frequently punctuate the text as they act as both rhythmic markers as well as visual symbols for the canal itself.

In many ways, Raven’s text displays attributes of what Stephen Burt has recently called the “New Thing” (his May/June 2009 Boston Review essay has sparked much lively discussion throughout the blogosphere), a recent tendency in contemporary poetry that represents, unlike the elliptical poetry of the 90s, a turn to reference, a focused attention on facts and things. New Thing poetry is restrained, unornamented, and concise—as is The C&O Canal. But according to Burt, the New Thing poem “finds, and emulates, some permanence” and aspires to the state of durable inscription. Raven’s poem, however, is more complicated as it assumes its own ephemerality even as it strives for a New Thing-like accuracy; the prefatory note ends with the claim that “[t]hese poems are a bit like those ruins, falling apart, but factually accurate.” And the poem proper begins with this compressed, assonantal rhyming couplet:

by the time the words reached
they were obsolete //

Raven reminds us of the noncoincidence between sign and referent—that his words will always be falling away from the object which they are supposed to represent. Yet, in a curious twist, this recognition of obsolescence, in fact, reinforces a correspondence between obsolete thing and obsolete text, between the C&O Canal and The C&O Canal.

Raven’s concern with ephemerality and obsolescence also seems to point to The C&O Canal’s own textual condition—that, first, it is a chapbook, a more fragile and fleeting object than the full-length book, and, second, that this poem, while it can be printed and staple bound, is primarily electronic, viewable as a PDF or through the relatively new publishing service Issuu which elegantly mimics the codex format with animated page turns. Will The C&O Canal eventually become part of a full-length work (a B&O Railroad, if you will) thereby making the chapbook version “obsolete”? Will Issuu catch on and continue to “reach” further audiences? These are suggestive questions that are looming on the horizon of this text.


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