The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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....

(The entire section is 533 words.)