One Christmas gift I love is a little book bought in the British Museum by recent travelers. It is: Ten Poems about Bicycles, ed. Jenny Swann. Arnold, Nottingham: Diversity House, 2009. It comes with a bookmark and a mailing envelope. The poems range chronologically from about a century ago to the present, but several of the more recent ones evoke those ineffable early days of cycling. One of the best is by Jonathan Davidson, entitled “A Lady Cyclist Learns to Cycle (England, 1917)”:
They led it round the garden and yard
on a long rein.
They fed it oil.
It was black as my jet black boots,
heavy as a gate.
It ticked, shone.
Climbing on it, I felt it shy,
lunge beneath me,
clatter to earth.
They held me up, the men, laughing,
shouldered me round,
The guns of Passchendaele bellowed.
The men held me.
It shook, I shook,
but when they let go I did not
let go, but moved
(From Moving the Stereo ISBN 0948282126, Jackson’s Arm, 1993 and forthcoming in Selected Poems, Smith/Doorstop 2013)
We can all appreciate that on the first couple of tries, the bike seems like an animal with a mind of its own (think of the amusing perception of a bike by the tribesmen in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart—they tie the European’s bike to a tree so it won’t escape). So here it’s as if they were teaching her to ride a horse, which they “led . . . on a long rein” and “fed.” It is “black” and “heavy,” it shies and lunges. Of course it is also mechanical, needing oil, ticking, and clattering.
The historical setting of 1917 could not be more telling. It’s the age of suffrage and emancipation in England, as in America. It’s also the age of World War I, the Great War, the “war
to end all wars.” Passchendaele was a small Belgian town near Ypres (pronounced “Wipers” by British troops), where a military campaign, typical in its dreadfulness, massive carnage, and indecisiveness, was waged in 1917. When its guns sound in the poem the speaker shakes, and “it” shakes. Is the “it” the bicycle, the ground, the foundation of society? Probably some of each.
At the poem’s end the female speaker is emancipated. She does “not let go”; she masters the bike and the brave modern world into which she moves forward.
I love poetry, especially poetry about bikes. Thanks, Anne and Henry.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.