I was raped by a speeding train. I asked it to.
I threw myself before it. I extended my legs, arms.
It came when I called it. Oh what enormous
metal thighs. Oh what fast thudding hips. Again
again against my blackening eyes, skull, chest, waist—
I loved its greasy sighs. I loved its wild blows.
My mind flew away. Who pulled me from below?
Who fed me with a tube? Who brought me
sunflowers? Who hummed me lullabies? Who
pardoned me? Who ripped my shame in two?
The reasons for throwing herself in front of a train are unspoken, although the act had been preceded by various accidents over the years. What is spoken is the aftermath—the six-and-a-half-day coma, the doctors saying she would never speak again, her father by her side like he’s been by her side so many times before, and, defying the doctors, what she says when she awakes: “Hi Dad.”
What the would-be suicide, if we can call her that, lacks is a sense of guilt or remorse. It’s her father who must question police and himself: The body of the girl belonged to my daughter. / The mind of the girl was a distorted version of / the mind of my daughter. But the heart and soul / of the girl did not belong to my daughter.
The poems about the train incident form only the first of the four parts of Billone’s collection. But it is attention- and interest-grabbing, and you’re pulled in to find what happened and why. You may or may not be disappointed in the answer.
The poems in the collection are diverse and varied—longer and shorter, prose poems and “structure” poems, but all engaging, all wrapping around you with a sense of quiet, and quiet reflection. It is not only Amy Billone who writes and walks these pages; Virginia Woolf is here, both in the introduction and explicitly in a poem (about a conversation on an airline flight).
So, too, is the late poet Jack Gilbert, who died in 2012 from complications from Alzheimer’s. Billone includes a particularly wonderful elegy for Gilbert, about the poet meeting him while he was still working but already experiencing the onset of the disease. The elegy for him becomes an almost haunting plea for the poet talking with him, a plea that he might know her name. We don’t know if that happens or not, but those few lines at the end express an almost exquisite sorrow, the diminishing of a great poet who nevertheless will leave a legacy in his poems. But we do want him to know our names, too.
I read The Light Changes three times, and each time it became a deeper work.
Or it might have been that I read it more deeply.
Billone is an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee and the author of the academic work Little Songs: Women, Silence, and the Nineteenth-Century Sonnet. Her poems and articles have appeared in a number of literary and academic journals.
Poetry at Work, by Glynn Young, foreword by Scott Edward Anderson
“This book is elemental.”