DeWayne Rail: “The Book of Days”

Sunday, September 8, 2019

This past week’s mail included a small, self-published chapbook (less than 6 x 4 inches) of a half-dozen poems by one of the most reticent members of the Hermetic Underground. I first read DeWayne Rail’s poems in an anthology, Down at the Santa Fe Depot, edited by David Kherdian (Giligia Press, 1970). As an independent press production at that time, it was fairly successful: over 120 libraries still list it in their holdings, and it had an impact on poets with a working-class background far greater than its print run and distribution might indicate. I certainly felt that I had come into contact with some kindred spirits when I got hold of a copy in the last week of October, 1971, during a visit to a friend who had transferred from U.C.L.A. to Fresno State to continue her studies in theater.

The poets in that anthology included DeWayne Rail, who had his MFA thesis at UC Irvine, “Going Home Again,” published by Perishable Press in 1971, as well as a chapbook published by Blue Moon Press in Fresno in 1988. I remember liking his work very much, and whenever I picked up the Fresno anthology, I wondered why he had not become as well-known as several other poets in that book. I’ve never met him, so I have no idea of whether he stopped writing at a certain point, or as I myself have intermittently done at various points in the past, stopped circulating work for publication.

Rail has, however, recently published a small chapbook (perhaps about 6 x 4 inches) with a half-dozen poems entitled The Book of Days. This very slim volume has no distributor whatsoever, so you’ll need luck both to get a copy as well as to keep track of where it is on your bookshelves. Unless you have a trove of favorite saddle-stitched productions, this book could easily prove irretrievable.

The poems themselves retrieve the most stoic degree of tenderness I have encountered in any poet since last reading Christopher Buckley’s work. The conclusion of the collection’s first poem portends that our planet itself has a kind of Sisyphean task:

“In August, the earth has come round
In its great circle the zone of meteorites.
Spacerocks fall in a parody of rain
And use our oxygen for their beautiful burning.”
(“The Day of Prophecy”)

As I read and re-read the other five poems (“The Day of Patience”; “The Day It Rained”; “The Day of Good Looks”; “Ash Wednesday”; and “The Day of Contact”), I detected the influence of Donald Justice, whose poems I have been reading recently for a post-in-progress. In particular, one hears how Justice’s variant of Cesar Vallejo’s “I will die on a rainy day in Paris” becomes a droll meditation by Rail on “Ash Wednesday,” which he takes more seriously than most escutcheoned believers.

Some readers might be surprised at my affection for Justice, since his work is so different from the tone of my primary interests. However, I am less inclined than other critics to relegate a poet to the Kuiper Belt of Quietude. I suppose that will be Rail’s fate, too, although we should not be completely startled at another outcome, foretold by a dream in “The Day of Contact”:

“I will step forward from the crowd to greet them,
accepting their recognition,
babbling in that alien tongue.”

In between prophecy and apocalypse, Rail awaits the reiterations of “ordinary life” and how one’s steadfastness is the valor requisite to endure its reiterations in a landscape all too familiar to characters in a story by Chekhov. Fortitude’s ranks are larger than we suppose. Look in the distance. Rail’s poems mark yet another boundary of resilient anticipation.