Summer 2024


Playing Backward on the Train

Geffrey Davis (Faculty)

Playing Backward on the Train

I’ve been thinking:

Maybe you-the-artist are just one of so many passengers with a backward-facing seat on the long line of life’s moving train, which we all ride for a while . . .

And maybe, before not too many stops, or after countless stops because the view has been that damn beautiful or that dark with intent, you-the-artist happen to notice that the window at your seat is open—has to have been open since taking your place—something that your body probably learned first after a shift in the weather or a bend in the train’s long line of travel pulled at the sound of air moving by . . .

Maybe you-the-artist begin struggling to resist a new urge to reach, to know differently the wind that can be heard and almost seen now against a world that continues falling away beyond the openness . . .

But maybe it takes a few more stops to move your hands because the wind is a little scary, and so you-the-artist mostly wait for the kind of air that enters the train by an accident that your own watching wants to rename . . .

Or maybe your hands move in the moment that follows your recognition because whatever wind you-the-artist can feel thrills a playful reach into the full onrush of where you’re heading . . .

Then maybe something brushes up against a bright or misshaped memory that makes you-the-artist question how long to keep yourself connected to the wind like this . . .

But then maybe a myth called family or home revises the first doubt of what the full wind would do—maybe a remembered joke about time makes you-the-artist more curious about the meaning of your hands—maybe you-the-artist think bird or plane and that’s enough to begin experimenting with turning your reach into a wing . . .

Maybe during the very next beat or once your familiar ideas of flight have been exhausted or become a little boring, you-the-artist long for other images that could say everything or nothing at all about the lift in this wind . . .

Maybe you-the-artist think about the hand shapes that kids from your neighborhood would sometimes use to show the desire and danger of their belonging, or those you’ve seen elders sometimes use to keep the ground’s growing swell beneath them, or . . .

Maybe right away or maybe deep into drafting this litany of images, you-the-artist discover that the wind has begun to sound less like wind: the quiet thought that your hands have something to do with this change adds another note of possibility to your play . . .

“Maybe right away or maybe deep into drafting this litany of images, you-the-artist discover that the wind has begun to sound less like wind . . .”

Maybe you-the-artist get bold or foolish enough to admit quietly to yourself or with an audible gasp that what you’ve been making is nearly or definitely something you-the-artist want to call music, which maybe embarrasses but also emboldens you-the-artist to continue . . .

Or maybe this is enough to tuck your humming hands back into your lap with a grin or an internal sigh . . .

But maybe, after getting your breath back, or swept up in wanting to learn this almost music, or without ever taking your hands away from the wind game, you catch a clip of what anyone would have to call a vowel . . .

Maybe it takes a gazillion more little finger strokes—some so odd, you can’t help but laugh; some so similar, you silently wonder about your ability to distinguish sounds—but eventually the winded vowel you are making grows into a pattern—no, a word . . .

Maybe while leaning closer to decipher what you’ve been hearing all along, slowly or suddenly you find the right strokes to hold that word in the margins of clarity: the wind has a voice, and it’s saying your name . . .

Maybe you scan the train for a witness and see that someone in a different seat has been watching what you’re doing, maybe for a long time, maybe at the very moment you turned the song of your own name. Maybe they have their hands at their window, too. What’s clear: the listening you just made is written with astonished pride across the new faith of their nodding face . . .

Dear Reader: The world is your witness. And now you carry that blessing with you. We need to hear the music you swoop into our ongoing traditions. Wherever you go, whatever you risk, however long, keep reaching your hands into the wind of story and poetry—and keep returning to let us hear your names, again and again and again . . .


Geffrey Davis is the author of three books of poems, most recently One Wild Word Away (BOA Editions 2024). His second collection, Night Angler, won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets; and his debut, Revising the Storm, received the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and was a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award Finalist. His writing has been published in places such as AGNIThe AtlanticNew England ReviewThe New York Times MagazineThe New YorkerOrion MagazineOxford American, PBS NewsHour, Ploughshares, and Poetry Northwest. A recipient of the Anne Halley Poetry Prize, the Dogwood Prize in Poetry, the Porter Fund Literary Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Davis has also been awarded fellowships from Bread Loaf, Cave Canem, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Whiting Foundation for his involvement with The Prison Story Project, which strives to empower incarcerated women and men to tell their own stories through writing. Davis currently lives in the Ozarks, where he teaches for the Program in Creative Writing & Translation at the University of Arkansas. Raised by the Pacific Northwest, he also serves as Poetry Editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.