– Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.
A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
When I referred to a moose wandering through the writing course I attended over 20 years ago I had a poem by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop in mind. Anne Stevenson, the tutor on the course, admired Bishop and had us read ‘The Moose’ one evening. Her enthusiasm for the poem was infectious; as a result of that reading we made moose jokes all week and invented our own moose-tall tales.
In essence, the poem describes an ‘encounter’: in the late afternoon, on a New England road, ‘home of the long tides/where the bay leaves the sea/twice a day’, a bus journeys through the gloaming, picking up and setting down passengers. We listen in to some of their conversations as ‘The light/ grows richer’ and ‘the fog,/ shifting, salty, thin,/ comes closing in.’ Some of the passengers are sleeping as, towards the end of the journey, a moose steps out, into the path of the bus. As the moose ‘high as a church,/homely as a house’ slowly sniffs and looks over the bus, the passengers watch in awe. Bishop asks:
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?
Since my encounter with the poem, in 1993, the image of a moose stepping into the road has felt important. For me it is part blessing, part transformation; Bishop’s moose puts me back in touch with a world at the edge of my perception, the place where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. I need a moose to stop me in my tracks sometimes so that I pay attention to things.
As I said (on Day 88) I didn’t expect a moose to show up at the poetry course this weekend. My reasons for going, I came to realise, were mostly symbolic. It wouldn’t actually matter (as others pointed out) if I spent the weekend planting onions or writing poems and whether I enjoyed it or not; the point was to reclaim my own life, separate from Dylan’s, and to take this next step along Transition Road.
I did, as it turns out, enjoy some aspects of the course. I wrote a little, read some poems, met some interesting people. The landscape was eerie in flood and mist. I had the swimming pool deliciously to myself. This morning, there was snow on the hills and frost glittering across the bay. There were difficulties too though. The food was awful (food seems to be a running theme on this blog!). It was unremitting rain. The patchy reception on my mobile made me uncomfortably unreachable. Still, I found a way each evening to call Dylan’s residential home. This was partly reassuring but not wholly so: last night, apparently, he was pointing to my photo and asking for ‘mooey’, quite agitated at times. The care worker was reassuring: ‘It’s different for him that’s all’. It might not feel so hard to bear, I told myself as I went to bed, if a moose showed up.
Today, travelling back, there was something on the track. Everything had been going smoothly: the course finished in time for me to leave by the mid-day train – the one that hugs the bay as far as Lancaster where I changed trains. Then, on the second leg of the journey – cutting across country to Manchester, making good enough time (just) for the third connecting train – suddenly the train jolted deep in its bowels, a grinding and groaning of metal beneath the carriage.
Something was wrong. The faces in the carriage turned to look at each other with wide eye-rings of question and alarm. We kept going, almost gliding, along the track until we came to a halt under an iron bridge. Then silence. This wasn’t the quiet when a moose steps out of an impenetrable wood. There was nothing for us to see: nothing for us to ‘exclaim in whispers,/childishly, softly’. After a while a young man sitting across the aisle from me (about Dylan’s age I’d say) spoke: ‘that didn’t sound good?’ he said to me, a soft question mark in his voice. ‘No’, I replied.
The train driver’s voice came over the tannoy. I thought I could hear a sadness in his voice as well as relief. We had hit something, he told us. He wasn’t sure whether it had been a cow or a horse. But anyway we had hit a big creature. He had called the incident unit to get the signals changed and the line shut down. He wasn’t sure what would happen now but he’d keep us informed. ‘Perhaps’, I said to the young man next to me, ‘we should consider ourselves lucky. Trains can be derailed by such things’. He looked at me with eyes I hadn’t seen before, new dawning.
During the incident, as is often the case when thrown together with strangers, I got into conversation with the man seated next to me (not the young man but a man my own age, at the other side). He was also making his way home after a weekend away and, like me, his grown-up children had recently left home. We reflected on how much easier it is, if you are responsible only for yourself, not to panic about a delay to a homeward journey. Previously we would have been anxious about having a child to collect or deliver or put to bed; journeys were conducted without margin for error, rushing and hoping for nothing to be in our urgent way. ‘Perhaps we are learning patience’, the man said, as we resigned ourselves to news of a further hour by the tracks.
We were never told what it was that we hit but we were stranded under that iron bridge for hours. The air pipes were damaged in the incident so the train doors wouldn’t open and the engine couldn’t drag us even the five minutes to the next station stop. Eventually they rigged up a gang plank which we walked in single file onto another train. By then, afternoon had turned to evening; the tracks stretched into darkness. The driver, welcomed us on board the new train, apologised for the delay – network rail staff, he promised us, would help us to make alternative connections.
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,
by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.
All quotes from Elizabeth Bishop ‘The Moose’
Postscript (written the following morning): I am very sorry to have to update this post. I have just been contacted by a participant on the poetry course who was following on a later train and who became caught up in the aftermath of the incident involving the train I was on. Those passengers were, apparently, told it had been a person on the track, rather than the information given to us on the train. I cannot verify this but it seems plausible (and would explain the note I thought I detected in the train driver’s voice). This is, of course, horribly sad.
I have re-read my post, asking myself whether I should edit it or take it down. I haven’t come to any conclusion about this yet so if anyone has a view or strong feeling please let me know. Thank you. In the meantime, let the silence in it stand as blessing.