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It Takes a Train to Cry

Excerpted from The Slice of Heaven Blog

My birthday is about to roll around again, and that means it’s been a full year since Little Peach and I made our memorable trip to the island south of Key West. This year, she will be my birthday chaperone once again, for the third year in a row actually, and I’m sure it will be just as memorable, although the memories will be of a different kind.

I can thank my ex-husband Pretty Boy Boyd, for my friendship with Little Peach, at least in part. If my life with Pretty Boy hadn’t been so, well, toxic, I might not have felt the need to flee my home on the edge of the ‘glades and drive five hours straight north to feel safe and nurtured. Fortunately, thanks to all you all, I now feel safe and nurtured almost all the time. (Let’s face it. There are some poisons that even you cannot prevent.)

I’m looking forward to Peach’s visit. I always feel that she brings out the best of the poetry in me. I’m a little late in sharing this with you, but August was Postcard Poetry month, and I decided to dedicate my efforts to Peach and her family. I may have mentioned this before: They are all train buffs, and size doesn’t matter. From tiny model trains to the biggest engine we can find, they are all over it. So, when I came across a stash of railroad postcards, I knew my poetry for August would have a theme.

Now I want to share them with you, too.

AUGUST POSTCARD POEMS ABOUT TRAINS

Tucson Station

Waiting for Phoenix,
my sister grabbed her guitar,
tossed her hair, and outside
the station, melted into
a herd
of marching band students
their talents encased in
boxes all sizes, not a simple
shape among them.
She hauled her fading
marriage onboard, and
set out, her face reflecting
the same determination as that
of the boy, loading up
an obvious tuba.

Halloween

One Halloween in Miami Beach
we sat on a bench and watched
the costumed world ride by
on city buses and in cabs.
Another year, I rode the train
to Kansas City, my hair slicked
back, my clothes a boy’s,
wing-tipped shoes,
a wonderful joke.
I arrived at the station.
You were not there.
Surprise.

Meditation

Listen to a far away sound
the meditation begins
Listen to the silence behind
the sound
We sit on folding metal chairs
on the second floor of the AA club,
the energy of addiction muffles
the silence.
If we’re lucky, a train will roar by
rattle the building
shake our bones
and take us with it,
leaving only a departing light
in our eyes.

Worst-Case Scenario

You may not know this, but
if your car is stalled on
the track, do not run
away from approaching
disaster. No, get your
feet down on the ground
to the side of the rails
and run forward
forward forward,
as far from the point
of impact as you can possibly be.
Good advice in all sorts of situations,
I believe.

Therapy

My heart poured out, I paused,
tasting metallic emotion,
wanting some tea leaves to
spell out a better story,
wanting the story to
divine a better me.
“I see,” said my therapist,
“love for you is a train wreck.”
My breath flew south,
down the tracks of my life.
“Yes.”

Performance

For some event in junior high, my
high strung teacher had us all perform
a poem for voices, names of trains,
Erie, Lackawana, Susquehannah,
Ohio, and Santa Fe.
Twenty-five sweating pre-teens
and all we had to do was say a word
or phrase in the proper sequence and
oh my god it sounded like a train.
All we had to do was get it right.
If only Steve had not played hookie.
It might have been great.

Crossing

Pick-up truck speeding through
cornfields too late at night
for the driver to care
about anything much as he
tosses out another empty
though the fragrant window
almost to the track
he does not stop but
hits the gas
and we cross over with
seconds to spare.
Even now, I wake up some nights
and see the light of that train
full bright in my face.

Memory Loss

I can’t remember: It goes like
this: “Something something something,
Cry like a train.”
Howl like a river,
Cry like a train?
Laugh like a joker,
Cry like a train?
Scream like a banshee,
Cry like a train?
Tell me you love me,
Cry like a train?

Echo

Florida East Coast F – E – C
a few block to the west
rumbles as freight trains do.
Doppler effect
rocks me to sleep.
Open windows.
Poison jasmine
stabs the night.
Sleepless, I step outside.
Another train calls from the east –
an illusion
bouncing off the
flat canals of my mind

The Box Car Children

Sitting in my third-grade class,
desks still with inkwells then,
I read of runaway industrious
children living in a boxcar,
abandoned, like them,
motionless, steady.
“That’s where I want to be,”
I thought.
“Safe, secure:
I want to live there.”
But now I need motion.
Now I need flow.
I’d live on a boat.

For Robertson Davies

Somewhere in Alberta,
Via Rail paused in its
pursuit of glaciers and hair-pin
curves, gliding to a full stop
by a picture postcard railway station.
In minutes, my feet found
their way to the door
of a tiny bookshop,
full of Canada.

The Visit

First you need to know we
had never been friends, just sisters,
thrown together by biology. Not
much in common except family
history, something from which I’d fled.
But on that weekend, we found
something else, a ghost in a barroom,
a poem on a napkin, the sound of
of giggles in the alley, our heels on the
pavement at two a.m. Drunkenly
silly, she lay down on the tracks,
and I rescued her from absolutely
nothing as no train went by.
That’s all it took.

Copper

High chaparral, high desert,
a land not known to many,
the Phelps Dodge train laden
with ingots would chug down
from the smelter, beside that
patina green river,
echoing endlessly between
the canyon walls, as bits of copper
broke free and left a trail
of treasure
for children to find
along the track.

Chicago

It’s boring, she said, that
trip to Chicago. I had to
disagree, but maybe she
did not take the train on a day
when a deep, dark purple storm
covered the plains and cast
the landscape into a scene
from a 1950s science fiction
novel. We spent the whole trip
looking for spaceships
and little green men.

Tracks

Fingers of weeds between the rails
where once there was speed.
Metal stripes glinting
through summer asphalt
where once there were rails.
Grandfather’s stories of
bitter cold chores
before catching the train
to sit in a classroom
learning Latin and Greek.

Little Sister

A birthday trip from Maine to Boston,
my wish to go by train,
and so we are in Sunday best,
our matching outfits nicely
pointing out our differences in
ages, size, and shape.
I’m lost in daydreams while she
runs the aisles. Exuberant,
offends the crisp conductor with
these simple words,
“We’re coming back on the bus!”

Zhivago

Too much snow inside and out.
Too many people, yet never enough.
Box cars and desolation
keep the passion moving from
Moscow to Siberia
and back again,
Pasternak stoking the fire
with scarred hearts, fatal choices,
love, anger, and desire.

Sammie

We take the three kids to ride
on small trains, perfectly scaled to
work for us giants, perching
gingerly to sit on boxcars
each child embraced in a
seat belt of grown-up arms.
Sammy squirms as I hold
her, blond hair tickling my
chin, we ride together in hot
pursuit of grandparents
and other locomotives of memories.

Hairpin Curve

Somewhere near Banff, we climb
the stairs to the scenic vista
car to watch both fore and aft
as our Via Rail cars wrap
snug to the mountain
twist impossibly to
the edge of the
cliff and noisily vanish
into the blackness of
the tunnel ahead

Rock Island Line

Shut down by greed
more than anything,
the line lives on in
abandonment and cobwebbed
stations, crumbling in small
towns that once knew the
sound of commerce as a
piecing whistle and a
plume of steam.

Fog

Seattle to Mount Vernon,
an easy ride.
I snap photos from
the window and shoot
them out through the
airwaves, nothing
but gray, nothing but
gray. Everyone knows
instantly right
where I am. No
caption required.

Gladys

Arizona dust brightened
the sky and dimmed
our breath,
the silver train from L.A.
running late toward
the Superstition Mountains.
She smiled stepping down
to the platform, gray green
knapsack and khaki slacks.
“The babies cried in Spanish,”
she said. “Aye eee aye eee aye eee.”

Daylight Savings Time

Rushing south in my little tan
truck, you remember the one?
Whenever we went through
a water-filled dip in the road,
the stick-shift became a fountain?
Arrived, we thought, in time for the
Tucson train, with plenty of time
to spare, Arizona time,
but Lordsburg, New Mexico, had
sprung forward, clock hands
waving good-bye down the tracks.

Henry Flagler’s Railway Car

Having spent some time in a cow pasture,
they said, the private car
with its yacht-like interior
at last was recognized,
identified, and restored to its previous
state of robber-baron grandeur. I’ve toured
it twice, but what I still want to know
is how did it get to the pasture
in the first place? And I like to think of
the cows having tea from the silver
service on the mahogany buffet.

Paul Theroux

One of the tricks, he said, in writing
about travel is to be not too well known,
not too easily recognized, and yet
accessible, so people will talk
and share their stories
as they share the compartment
especially on incredibly
long journeys,
across Siberia,
from Boston to Tiera del Fuego,
along the rails of the Orient Express.
I want his job.

Anna Karenina

I love this story.
Do you think it’s true?
Apparently, they say, Tolstoi
once said he was as surprised as anyone
when Anna Karenina threw herself
under the wheels
of that train.

Midnight Special

Working through a stack of
dear Macy’s books,
I’m taken aback
to find the words on
bright cardboard pages
bringing music to my mind:
“Mary Mack, dressed in black,
silver buttons up and down her back.”
I close the book and start to sing.
“No, Grandma” she says.
“There is no midnight special here.”

Well, no, that does not add up to 31 Postcard Poems for August. I only had 27 railroad-themed cards, but I could certainly have written four more train stories. I was surprised by how many different train images, stories, and poems even now fill my mind. A lot of them are about you. Hope you’ll write soon.

P.S. The other four poems are about a boat.