C.S. Giscombe is a poet fascinated by railroads and what they teach us–about landscapes, about our relationships to the places where we live, and about history. Now a professor at UC Berkeley, he once worked as a railroad brakeman, so he knows what he’s talking about. His last book, which the jacket tells us is “a poem in the essay form including appropriate maps of the territory,” is called Ohio Railroads.

Giscombe traces the railroads through his hometown of Dayton and shows how they developed to both reflect and shape the settlement. He uses the railroads, along with rivers and roads, to mark the place of native inhabitants and the segregation of his own African American community. Giscombe re-creates the structure of the place and then puts himself inside it. He returns to Dayton for his mother’s funeral and then goes out to the urban, industrial railroad for a moment of what might be consolation: “When I drove my mother’s Camry to the railroad on the day following her death I stopped before driving onto the bridge itself; there would have been ample space between the tracks and the cement side of the bridge but to drive there would have been to invite the notice of the Dayton Police.” That precise unsentimental observation at a moment when any sentimentality might have been excused is typical.

Giscombe does a kind of nature writing that captures the nuance of place without any of the expected lyrical or pastoral flourishes. In earlier work, he explored some of the still-wild country in British Columbia, but he was particularly interested in finding the places where a Jamaican trader and traveler of the late nineteenth century, a black man named John Robert Giscome, was the first non-native to visit and describe. Despite the spelling difference, Giscome may have been a relative of the poet, who was the first non-native to make the portage between the Fraser River and the Peace River, between the Pacific watershed and the Arctic watershed. Giscombe published a fascinating memoir/narrative/history about these discoveries, Into and Out of Dislocation, which grows from the story that inspired him, becoming a picture of race and colonialism without ever losing its fascination as local history of a wild place. It also includes maps!

In Prairie Style, another collection of prose poems, he mentions a fox he sees in Urbana, Illinois, one night while returning from a movie. “But I always see animals when I travel, birds too. Dusk to dawn, Mistah Fox is out on night patrol. There’s little surprising about a location; I’d say Mistah Fox can match or resist the prairie with equal success.” There are no easy descriptions of the animal, just Mistah Fox himself out doing what he does, living in his place.

C.S. Giscombe reads from his work at UMMA on Thursday, January 7.