“Cumberland Station” is a free-verse elegy with nine stanzas that vary in length. The station in the poem’s title is in Cumberland, Maryland, a town at the end of the Potomac River that was once considered the “Gateway to the West.” While the station at one time served as a gateway, the poem explores how a station can change from a gateway to a “godforsaken/ wayside.” Throughout the poem, the station reflects the speaker’s moods. Like much of Dave Smith’s work, the poem is autobiographical, exploring the effect of place and history on individuals who struggle against changing times and struggle to maintain their sense of self.
In the first stanza, the speaker mentions objects that he sees as he enters the Cumberland train station: “gray brick, ash, hand-bent railings, steps so big/ it takes hours to mount them, polished oak/ pews.” These objects are fragments of a grand old station, a place of giants where “Big Daddy” once collected children for thunderous rides on steam engines, where crowds of people had food and purpose, where children rode free. The speaker identifies himself as a child who once “. . . walked uphill/ through flowers of soot to zing/ scared to death into the world.” In the first two stanzas the images and bits of narrative create a nostalgic mood—even the soot and ash are beautiful, flowerlike.
Cumberland Station is no longer a place of giants, however; it is now a deserted and damaged hall. It presents a scene that disturbs the speaker: “I come here alone, shaken.” In stanza 3, the changes in the speaker and the station are corroborated by the fallen state of Cumberland, a town where jobless, penniless families “cruise” the city with no purpose, a town of “shaken” people. To help the reader understand why Cumberland declined and why the town incites both fear and repulsion in the speaker, he recounts not only Big Daddy’s death but also the death of a child who was “diced on a cowcatcher” and the deaths of two male relatives, an uncle who “coughed his youth/ into a gutter” and an alcoholic cousin who “slid on the ice.”
After the speaker chronicles Cumberland’s fall, in the center of the poem he asks a rhetorical question that stops the narrative: “Grandfather, you ask why I don’t visit you/ now you have escaped the ticket-seller’s cage.” The question and the answer return the reader to themes introduced early in the poem—Cumberland is a fallen place, a place to which no one would wish to return. Yet the grandfather’s question forces the speaker to contemplate the guilt and ambivalence that the return causes him. The speaker’s intentions are good—he promises often that he will return, that he will free the grandfather, his only surviving relative, that they will escape “like brothers.” When in Cumberland, however, the speaker is no longer himself—he is like “a demented cousin” who steals an abandoned newspaper. While he fears Cumberland and the memories that the place evokes, he also longs for the past. He even wishes his grandfather were there to punish him, to tell him what is right and wrong.
Forms and Devices
Since the speaker in “Cumberland Station” tells a story, the poem could be labeled a narrative. Since the poet uses the narrative to express the speaker’s psychological state (a state that the speaker only half understands), the poem could also be called a lyric. Finally, since the poem explores the transience of life, is reflective, and laments the loss of a time and place, it is also elegiac. The narrative style, the serious subject matter, and the elegiac form reveal the extent to which Smith draws on a poetic tradition that dates to the Anglo-Saxon period. In anonymous Old English poems, such as “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer,” isolated speakers journey, lamenting the loss of their lords or their families. Like the speakers in those poems, Smith’s speaker also journeys, lamenting the loss of heroes and heroic times.
Since the lines vary in length and lack end rhyme, “Cumberland Station” could be called a free-verse poem. The line length is not completely irregular, however. Like “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer,” “Cumberland Station” has long lines, averaging ten syllables. Like Old English poems, there are also at least eight syllables in most lines, and the poet relies on accent and alliteration, rather than on a precise number of syllables or a precise meter, to create rhythm. Long lines usually indicate a serious subject, which is true in Old English poetry and in “Cumberland Station,” so the form and the content reinforce each other. In addition, the poem, like Old English elegies, has a two-part structure: The first half of the poem is descriptive, with bits of narrative and concrete imagery; the second half is contemplative, with ruminations on morality, guilt, and responsibility.
While the elegiac form and the long line length draw on a tradition, Smith breaks with tradition by using enjambment throughout the poem, as is evident in the final three lines: “I wish I had the guts/ to tell you this is a place I hope/ I never have to go through again.” By breaking these and most lines in mid-thought, by not ending lines with natural pauses where punctuation marks would usually appear, the poet denies a sense of closure, forcing the reader onward from one line to the next. In addition, the enjambment allows one to read a line in several ways. In the above passage, the “I hope” at the end of the second line is first read as modifying the place, but this “hope” is shifted to the speaker in the final line. The avoidance of closure at the ends of lines reinforces the speaker’s inability to find closure in his life. Although there are periods at the ends of stanzas, and although the poem comes to a dramatic finish, the closure is only partial. The speaker is left wishing he had the “guts” to escape Cumberland station but not knowing whether he does. By using enjambment, the poet reinforces the speaker’s psychological confusion, a confusion that is prototypically modern.