During two hours on the train
I rerun the film of my life
Two minutes per year on average
Half an hour for childhood
Another half-hour for prison
Love, books, wandering
take up the rest
the hand of my companion
gradually melts into mine
and her head on my shoulder
is as light as a dove
When we arrive
I’ll be fifty or so
and still have
about an hour
Abdellatif Laâbi “Two Hours on the Train,” from In Praise of Defeat. English language copyright © 2016 by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Source: In Praise of Defeat (Archipelago Books, 2016)
1. Why do you think the poet chose a train journey to structure this poem?
2. The poem is written in free verse (no rhyme or meter), with no punctuation, and no enjambment of lines. How do these choices fit the poem?
3. As the poet reruns the film of his life, he gives half an hour for childhood, and half an hour for prison. How might they be equivalent? In what way is childhood like prison?
4. Time is important in this poem. If you look closely, you will notice that the minutes and years fail to add up. Is the poet bad at math? Or is it a poetic strategy? What clue might phrases such as “on average,” “about”, “or so” provide about the poet’s intention? What meaning do you take from the slippage of time?
5. When you learn that Abdellatif Laâbi was jailed, tortured, and exiled, does it change your reading of the poem? How do you understand the narrator’s experience of time now?
6. Exercise: Write a version of Two Hours on the Train, about your life.
a. Choose a conveyance (i.e., unicycle, bus, sailboat) as a metaphor for your own life’s journey.
b. Choose a time scheme (i.e., three minutes, five days, six months) and portion out time for various life episodes, altering time’s linearity.
c. Follow Laâbi’s structure loosely, along these lines:
During [three minutes] on a [unicycle]
I [replay] the [race] of my life
[five seconds] for [skinned knees]