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Poem of the week: Diesel or steam by George Szirtes

Poem of the week: Diesel or steam by George Szirtes

Diesel or steam

You’re standing in the doorway after class
when Jimmy wants to know if you prefer
diesel or steam. You can’t simply say pass

and hope to leave. There’s no time to defer.
You have to say right now as if you knew
the answer. But what to say? The two things blur

so which to choose? And why did he ask you?
Others are waiting. Nobody explains.
Their eyes are curious. Your answer’s due

though you know next to nothing about trains
and engines. So you vaguely plump for steam
and are approved. Now steam runs through your veins

you’re of the party. Life becomes a dream
of existential choices. Jimmy’s gone.
Out in the playground where your classmates scream

and tussle, odds are million to one
you’ll get them right but choices must be made
and loyalties defined. What’s done is done.

Diesel is wrong! You have a barricade.
Prepare, Britannia, to face the foe!
Possess your weapons. Do not be afraid

of where the trains divide and where they go.

In the 25-poem title-sequence of Fresh Out of the Sky, George Szirtes, born in 1948 in Budapest, examines childhood from a suddenly dislocated perspective after his family’s flight from Hungary in 1956. “I can’t quite conjure it. I seem to stand / at an angle to my life,” the new arrival says in the first poem of the first set, Waking to the Sea. Organised in five parts, each containing five poems in terza rima, the sequence reveals hard choices and borders, but also an eerily limited visibility of horizons, sometimes imagined in terms of the English weather. Terza rima, notoriously difficult in English, gives the formally deft poet a useful structure for negotiating such contradiction, the verse pattern itself inscribing a movement between extension and contraction.

The relentless decision-making of the rhyme-scheme echoes in the narrative. The child’s hesitation, when challenged by the schoolboy rail-enthusiasts to choose between “diesel or steam” (a decision relevant to late-1950s technological innovation) is spun out until the middle line of the fourth stanza. The idiom occasionally shifts, to suggest further uncertainty in a language that offers many possibilities of contrast and nuance, the formality of “defer” and the slanginess of “right now”, for instance. A first-person pronoun might have increased narrative intimacy but the favoured second person “you” is the pronoun for a self being viewed from a distance.

Again, there’s the combined hard edge of a right-or-wrong answer and the mental “blur” that produces confusion, plus a suspicion of added threat: “And why did he ask you?” Cultural affinity is being tested, and, by implication, a definition of masculine Britishness. The response will decide the child’s entry into the group or exclusion from it. Having made by chance the correct choice, the child is only too aware how often he’ll face further tests, and that these won’t be confined to school affiliations. In stanza five, “Jimmy’s gone”. The “playground where your classmates scream // and tussle” suggests the more vast and threatening arena of adult striving.

Diesel or steam is from the second part of the five-part sequence, headed Tom Brown’s Schooldays. The reference to Thomas Hughes’s 1857 novel, largely set at Rugby School, might ironically evoke oppressive and class-bound “British values” still in force a century later, despite reforms in the education system. And although, unlike the novel, the poem depicts no physical brutality, a form of “cultural bullying” is implied there and elsewhere the sequence. But in Diesel or steam, the deeper, subtler question is that of “existential choices”.

When the narrator encourages himself forward into battle in the last four lines, there is, I think, an act of larger memory at work in the question about “where the trains divide and where they go”. Earlier in the poem, too, the lines “You can’t simply say pass // and hope to leave” summon a Europe where the decision to board a train, should any choice be available, might bring the possibility of survival, or exclude it.

An astute critical and biographical reading of Szirtes’ work can be read here.

Source: theguardian.com