Review: Jonathan Wells’ “Train Dance”

“Train Dance” Jonathan Wells
Four Way Books, 2011, 978-1-935536-14-7, $15.95

Jonathan Wells - Train Dance

Train Dance may be a first book… but it is an inaugural collection by a seasoned imagination. With a touch of haunt, a pinch of surrealism, and heaps of good literary taste, Jonathan Wells’ poems pull out of the terminus: “An innocent scull rows, / sixteen knees and elbows, a fraction of a centipede going slow. / I wait there and the train plunges through me” (“The Dream Line”).

Train Dance is divided into four sections. The opening section is a haunted coast through “stations of the night when… the body still tingles with astonishment at what it has and hasn’t kept.” The poems have all of the urban haunt of Cavafy and the slight bitter-sweet melancholy of the well-adjusted immigrant. Two poems are actually comically based; one having to do with a GPS system which renders friendly voice prompts and is named “Ms. Magellan,” and the other having to do with Yoga… dog yoga.

The second section turns to more inhabited poems; the speaker of the poems laying claim to a ticket… a pass that turns out not to be just his ticket to ride the city’s train, but also his ticket in the lottery of the city. Couplets and a villanelle share the sun, city, and Hispanic and Hebrew rhythms of the streets. It is a city chorus of syncopated rhythms and intergenerational and international relationships:

My brother sleeps upstairs on an inflatable
mattress (that air was once my breath).

There won’t be time before he leaves at
dawn to recall the grapestand under

the stars near Kandahar, or our friend Joe,
emerald smuggler or Green Beret, seized at the border

with Iran, shouting, “I’m a Christian” as he was
led away by guards to the barbed wire enclosure.

… A summer squall leaves leaves few traces on the lake:
a little air still in the sails, an extra wrinkle in the waves.

(“A Visit”)

Section three moves further out into the geography of relationships. The transports are clear: father, son, grandson. The moonlit landscapes of boulevard trees, buildings, and urban fugues give way to nostalgic sunlight, trees, and Indian summers. The poems look backwards and forwards. The poet wrestling with time and oceans; is immersed in a consuming element:

Come to me. Say my name.
The sun made me ten stories tall
when I walked in the lines
of the labyrinth keeper’s rake. One story
made me wiser than I am and I could feel
the geese fly out of me although
they barely moved their wings.

(“Please, Hold”)

The final section of the collection moves in closer to the ineffable. Perhaps there is a dash of Yeats, a pinch of Heaney. Clearly, ceremony. There is a sonnet entitled “Speechless.” But what we are coming to is not the other terminus…but the caboose! Train Dance lets us disembark, graced and wanting more.

Scott Hightower is the author of three books. This fall, Self-Evident, his fourth collection stateside, is forthcoming from Barrow Street Press. Early next year, Oases/Hontanares, a bi-lingual book, is forthcoming from Devenir, Madrid. Hightower teaches as adjunct faculty at NYU and Drew University. A native of central Texas, he lives in Manhattan and sojourns in Spain.