Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402
“Cumberland Station” was first collected in a volume entitled Cumberland Station, which is divided into three parts. In part 1 the speaker is near the Atlantic coast, near Tidewater, Virginia, but by the end of the first section, he has traveled to Cumberland, Maryland, a journey inland that continues through part 2, a movement to a fallen world that lacks vitality. In part 3 the speaker returns to the water (Tidewater), where there is a sense of renewal. In a poem from part 3, “Sailing the Back River,” the speaker is a waterman who fishes for something other than fish; he sits in “the toy wheelhouse of fathers.” He fishes the past, but he fishes to save his own life, not to rescue dead relatives, and he throws “out love/ like an anchor.” While the speaker of this poem does not escape the past and does not live in a carefree land of plenty, he is optimistic, unlike the speaker in “Cumberland Station.”
Images of fish, fishing, and water appear most frequently in part 3 of the collection, but they surface throughout the book, even in “Cumberland Station.” In the center of the poem, the grandfather asks the speaker why he does not return to fish. On a literal level, the speaker does not fish because “soot owns even the fish” and the Potomac River is “sored,” but on a symbolic level, he does not return because the town is a wasteland that he associates with too many tragedies. Fishing will not return the clean river, the healthy fish, or the dead (his nephew, his uncle, Big Daddy, or the “ash-haired kids”). In Cumberland one will only catch “bad/ news.”
The mood of “Cumberland Station” is tragic. The city once offered pioneers a gateway through the mountains to the West and offered industrialists access to rich coal fields. Now, however, it is a fallen place that never fulfilled its promise. Like the Old English poets, Smith laments the loss of heroes and heroic times, the loss of what might have been—he mourns the loss of men such as Big Daddy and others who might have guided him. He also laments the modern industrial age that has fouled the Potomac to the point that one cannot fish. In addition, he laments the modern condition that allows generations to drift without moral guidance, without mentors to teach right from wrong, and without a sense of purpose or past.