Charm for Catching a Train

On Poems, Process and Time

Milena Williamson

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Milena Williamson is from Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. She recently submitted a PhD in poetry at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University Belfast. She has received the Eric Gregory Award and the Ireland Chair of Poetry project award. Charm for Catching a Train is her first pamphlet. For more:

     A few weeks after my debut pamphlet arrived in the post and I saw my name on the cover for the first time, my partner started a job in Dublin. He would wake up, ride a newly purchased second-hand bicycle to Lanyon Place, jump on the train to Connolly and walk to his office. And this would have been a somewhat manageable commute, except that on his first day of work, when he was standing in the dark in front of our flat, he discovered that his bicycle had a slow puncture. “It’s a slow,” he said, pressing on the sagging back tire. Half-asleep and still in my pyjamas, I replied, “A slow what?” Since then, I have been thinking about this image of a bicycle with a leaky tire and how it relates to writing and publishing. A slow puncture means that as you ride, the tire pressure drops and the tire gradually deflates; even as you go forward, you’re slowing down.

     My poetry pamphlet, Charm for Catching a Train, was published in mid-September, just weeks after I submitted my PhD in poetry at the Seamus Heaney Centre. Since then, the pamphlet has helped me go forward, filling the time I used to spend on my PhD with poetry-adjacent tasks: signing copies in No Alibis, posting review copies, planning readings and more. The pamphlet is now a thing that exists in the world, a thing that people will read and, if I’m lucky, will bring about future opportunities for me, opportunities that could help make writing poetry a more sustainable career. And yet, even as the pamphlet takes me forward, it slows me down, challenging me to reflect on the five years I have spent living in Belfast and the five-year span of the poems themselves. As Zosia Kuczyńska writes, “The temporality of publishing often leaves a writer out of joint: you find yourself, years after having written a series of poems whilst in a certain headspace, having to think yourself back to an emotional state or intellectual groove from which you’ve since moved on.”

     Around half of the poems in Charm for Catching a Train come from my first year in Belfast, when I was pursuing the MA in poetry at the Seamus Heaney Centre. A few of them even date to my first few weeks in Belfast. I turned in ‘On Our Last Night in Lancaster, Pennsylvania’ to my first workshop of the MA. I arrived in Belfast on a one-way plane ticket, unsure when I would next see my family and newly single. I wrote this sonnet to help me make sense of how my life had changed so completely, so quickly. The poem’s familiar fourteen-line structure is fractured; it opens and closes with stanzas of two-and-a-half lines and a nine-line stanza splices the poem together. ‘On Our Last Night in Lancaster, Pennsylvania’ explores time, as the speaker and their ex “loop back,” retracing their steps and taking in the shopfronts they have already passed once and will pass again, while the speaker simultaneously catalogues a summer of shared memories.

     After a conversation in Town Square with a new friend about the lack of abortion access in Northern Ireland, I wrote ‘An Irish Woman Travels to England’ and brought it to Ciaran Carson’s Friday workshop. Although I had attended for a few weeks, this was the first poem of mine to be discussed by the group. I think this poem caused some discomfort among participants; who was I, who had only just moved to Northern Ireland, to write about the experiences of women who had travelled to England to have abortions? Having grown up in Pennsylvania, with its progressive laws, I felt compelled to write about the lack of abortion in Northern Ireland as a woman who was (and still is) living here: how a change of location could fundamentally alter one’s bodily autonomy. And how bizarre, that in an era of global movement, one’s bodily autonomy – at least, for women and people with uteruses – is directly shaped by the borders we (read: men) have drawn and redrawn.

     Many of the poems in Charm for Catching a Train are about family and about communicating closeness over long distances. This is a poetry pamphlet of phone calls and letters, of childhood memories and re-negotiating the parent-child relationship as the child grows up. The speaker feels the inexorable passage of time, both in relation to her visits home and her aging father: “Before we say goodnight, I stack books beneath his bed/ in order to send the stomach acid farther from his throat./ What can I do but lift my father’s bed while I am here.”

     Not only is writing poetry an exercise in time-travel, but so is organizing a poetry pamphlet. The title of the pamphlet was one of the last things to be decided. It took several months of work on the manuscript for me to see just how many journeys occur in the poems: the taxi ride home from the JFK airport in ‘Terminal Six’; the passing horse and buggy in ‘On Our Last Night in Lancaster, Pennsylvania’; the boat that brought my great-grandparents and grandparents to America in ‘The Wolf’; and finally, the train in the title poem. The pamphlet begins with the speaker “walking farther than [she has] been before” and ends with her waiting on a platform until “a train arrives from the right direction.” The first poem in the pamphlet, ‘Stranger’ is about being new to Ireland; how reading Ciaran Carson’s ‘Queen’s Gambit’ led me to Tomb Street before I knew my way around Belfast. However this poem was written in 2019, two years after I moved to Belfast and not long after Ciaran passed away. I had only experienced the version of Belfast with Ciaran in it, attending his workshop every week. When he died, I experienced a sense of dislocation that reminded me of my “early days” in Belfast. The last poem, ‘Charm for Catching a Train’ depicts the speaker sharing her knowledge of Belfast with her friend, a visitor from America, who is perplexed by both the train fare and how to board the train: “She asks how to alight, whether people/ go one at a time or everyone alights together.” Yet this poem was written in 2018, when I myself was still learning so much about Belfast and when I did not know that I would still be living here, so many years later.

     Most of the other poems in Charm for Catching a Train were written within the past few years, as part of my PhD in poetry. This started as an archival exploration of my father’s journal, photographs and reports from 1966-1967, during which time he was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. ‘Entry’, which is the first poem in my PhD and is included in the pamphlet, describes the beginning of my research, “rifling through my father’s journal,” and learning about the person he was at twenty-three, when he refused to participate in war. Being a conscientious objector altered the course of his life. He was assigned to alternative service in Litowa, a village in Tanzania, where he did bookkeeping and agricultural planning. This project gave me the opportunity to understand how war is a way of life in America and how resistance to war has been valued and passed down through the generations of my family: “My father burnt his draft card in his father’s face. / We skip the camo aisle in Kids R Us.” Even as I was living and writing in Belfast, I was grappling with what it meant to be an American citizen and an American poet.

     While the poems in this pamphlet cover a five-year span, the journey of the pamphlet itself took eighteen months, from initial acceptance to publication. One morning, I was sitting across from my partner in a house he used to rent in Belfast when an email made me gasp. The unpublished manuscript that would develop into Charm for Catching a Train had received the Eric Gregory Award. I would say that this was a life-changing moment, but it was April 2021 and everything had already changed. I was waiting for my first Covid-19 vaccine, which would allow me to safely travel to America and be reunited with my family, while simultaneously being separated from my partner, who was not allowed to enter America as a noncitizen.

     Speaking of my partner Eoghan, the newest poem in Charm for Catching a Train is one of my favourites and it is for him. Given how much of the pamphlet is concerned with connection and intimacy – in familial relationships, friendships and romantic relationships – the manuscript would have been incomplete without a poem that portrayed how deeply our love has transformed me: “The life with you is the one in which I am healed.” The speaker, after being catcalled only hours before she is to give a poetry reading, insists: “I do not want to be regarded by anyone except the ocean.” Yet, by the end of the poem, she has subverted the male gaze by allowing herself to be seen by someone who loves her, and by beginning to see herself in the same light: “At every corner, I am a woman on a street corner./ Regarding myself (as you do), I am as great as the ocean.” I feel this is a poem that addresses what it means to be vulnerable with ourselves and with others. As Anne Lamott writes, “We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.”

     As I come to the end of this (whatever this is) – a reflection on my pamphlet, on poetry, on my life in Belfast and the people I have learned from – I’m struck by the paradoxes of poetry and just how little I actually know. In my notes from a Friday workshop with Ciaran Carson, I have jotted down that he said: “A poem should have many readings. If it doesn’t, it’s no fun.” Poetry pulls me apart and puts me back together again. It is a balancing act, like a handstand, between what Mary Oliver calls the “written document” and the “mystical document.” Poetry happens “when one raises their voice,” according to James Fenton, but also “when one lowers their voice,” as Mary Ruefle challenges.

     I love writing and I am making my peace with the doubts and fears that come with publishing, especially as a debut female writer. As Anne Lamott writes, “The months before a book comes out of the chute are, for most writers, right up there with the worst life has to offer…The waiting and the fantasies, both happy and grim, wear you down…Publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises…The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.” I am learning how to be excited and proud of my pamphlet, as a thing in the world that other people can now access, and writing this piece has helped me do just that. As I write this, I am a few days away from my pamphlet launch in Belfast, during which I will read my poems aloud to a room full of people who care about me. Writing and publishing Charm for Catching a Train has given the very thing that I longed for when I first arrived in Belfast: a community and, perhaps, a sense of belonging. And after the launch, I would like to help my partner fix his bicycle.

You can buy Charm for Catching a Train here: