I remember once hearing a poem by Emily Dickinson that began, ‘I like to see it lap the Miles,’ and continued on with lines such as ‘Prodigious step around a pile of mountains.’ I was in a class, and the professor recited the poem before opening it up to the students to guess what the poem was actually about. I raised my hand and guessed that the poem was about a river. ‘Good guess,’ my professor said. ‘Quite interesting.’ I was pleased enough with that response, thinking I had probably gotten it right.
It turned out that the poem, according to my professor, was about the railroad, which at the time carried current cultural significance, as it was written approximately during the 19th century.
Of course, you can’t be all the way wrong about a poetic interpretation (though you can—and many do—take advantage of literature’s lack of answers, its overabundance of possibility, to present some rather far-fetched malarkey to falsely promote some sort of intelligence), and the railroad metaphor made perfect sense, regardless of whether Dickinson ever verified it (I don’t know whether she did or not, and I am lazily unwilling to find out just now), but I was still disappointed that my answer lacked the legitimacy of the author herself or, in the very least, scholars who’ve studied her.
Because to me, when I first heard the poem and today, all these years later, the poem is just as much about the river as it may be about the railroad. The two concepts, both in reality and in literature, are either described as or are used to describe something ubiquitous, everywhere, something both dependable and overwhelming in its constancy, its always being there.
In fact, some of my most vivid travel memories aren’t necessarily eventful, but they often involve a river or a railroad. These memories aren’t usually the ones I root for when I want to tell a story, but they are always there, not to be forgotten. I remember one night during my first week in London, standing on Blackfriars Bridge and staring across the Thames, as both the Northbank and the Southbank stared across from one another at the tides. The bridge also carried an elevated railtrack, but I don’t remember my thoughts being disrupted by the sound of trains crossing it, since I was, of course, considering my own railroad crossings at the time.
I can’t help looking out as a river moves forever and never goes away. People of higher degree, I’m sure, have studied and conjectured the effect(s) of the sight of moving water on one’s synapses. All I really know is that there is something going on in there.