Train Song

I lurk in a wooded
bend of the railroad
where I won’t be spotted.
Duffle bag — check.
Zippo lighter — check.
Deck of marked cards — check.
All my life I’ve been listening to trains
& all my life I’ve been letting them go by,
each whistle Dopplering down
from summons to wail,
followed by a thunder
as intoxicating as any heavy metal band,
graffitoed messages flying past
too fast to parse
& a poorly aligned wheel
shrieking like feedback from a speaker
all the way to Chicago.
It’s not that I want to travel, but this sky’s
too narrow, too full of murk.
It hurts to breathe.
I raise a pants leg
& here’s another goddamned tick
just starting to burrow in.
Out West, I’ve heard, there are places so empty
nobody’s even given them a name yet.
That’s why the next
slow freight & I
have a date.
Here comes
one now. Hear how
the rails are starting to sing?

*

For the Big Tent Poetry prompt, “Write about something you would love to do but have never dared.” Other responses are linked in the comments here.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

21 Comments


  1. Ah, this makes me want to hop aboard…off to the nether regions. Loved the way this made me feel!

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  2. Hey Dave…Love this. It’s the old-time hobo/modern wanderer mix. Love this sound: “& a poorly aligned wheel/shrieking like feedback from a speaker/all the way to Chicago.” (but I’m partial to Chicago) and the sky that’s “too narrow, too full of murk.” Really, really liked the detail of the tick, too. Hope you reach your destination safely! Thanks.

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    1. Hi Linda — Thanks for stopping by. Yeah, we have a private railroad crossing on the main line from Philly to Chicago, the old Pennsylvania Railroad. The trains don’t run too slowly anymore, though, now that Norfolk Southern is running things.

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      1. I live most of the time in a little town in KY where the train goes right down Main St. It has to go 15 mph through town, but once that engine hits the town boundaries, the train picks up speed, even if the tail end is still on the other end of town. It’s quaint unless you’re in a hurry…they run about every 30 minutes. If you’re ever going to hop a train, this is where you would do it. =)

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        1. Every 30 minutes? Wow, that’s a lot! The town adjacent to me, Tyrone, has a spur line running through it, but I don’t think they ever have more than one train a day (and hopping it wouldn’t take one to any place more exciting than Bellefonte, PA).

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          1. Sometimes every 15 minutes…one going one way, one going the opposite direction. All freight. We’re close to Louisville, is why. And, about 2 hours by car from Cinci. I think there are only eight towns in the U.S. that have trains going down Main St. Fortunately, I live on the “right side” of the tracks…the side near I-71. ha!


          2. I have often wondered which side of the tracks is the wrong side in Tyrone. They both seem pretty wrong to me. Having train tracks through town ain’t all bad, though. Denzel Washington came here last fall to shoot part of Hollywood thriller about a terrorist attack on a train. The crew said lots of nice things about the town — warm fuzzies all ’round.


          3. Ha! Yeah, part of the movie, Elizabethtown, was filmed in Oldham Co. here. But, I don’t think they’ve used the train in town for anything. It really is quaint…we get a lot of tourists simply to shoot the train coming through. Here’s a link to a photo (sometimes spelled LaGrange, sometimes La Grange in search engines): http://www.cincyrails.com/csxphotos/csxQ375LaGrangeKY3-18-06JELandrumPhoto.jpg


  3. Doesn’t the cry of the rail raise your travel hackles? I’ve never heard a train that didn’t cause dissatisfaction with the place that held my feet. Beautiful piece.

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    1. Thanks. And the American blues repertoire would be so much poorer without that dissatisfaction, wouldn’t it?

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  4. As a fantasy freight-train-hopper from way back, this fits the bill perfectly, Dave.

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  5. nice. conjures up I’m Not There – the young ‘Woody’ character hopping on the freight train with his guitar – and I guess quite an archetypal American movie motif. i like that the poem takes place before the hopping on board, so one is not completely sure it will actually happen…
    i have a poem called Train Song!

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    1. Oh yeah? Will you share it? I’d like to read that.

      I guess it is an American movie motif. I’m thinking of the hilarious scene at the beginning of “Oh Brother Where Art Thou.”

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  6. there just aren’t enough hobo poems in the world.

    these lines

    “Out West, I’ve heard, there are places so empty
    nobody’s even given them a name yet.”

    do a fabulous job of describing the attraction!

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    1. I’m not sure it’s true anymore, but yeah — the age-old allure of blank spaces on the map. Glad you liked the poem.

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  7. Such a rich portrait in so few lines. Tight brush strokes give me the person, train, dreams, desire. And I really, really like the musical references.

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    1. Thanks, Deb. I can’t actually think of a heavy metal song specifically about trains — maybe trains blowing up or something — but they are, literally, heavy metal.

      Now I gotta go find Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train” on YouTube…

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  8. Remember those little flatcars with an up/down pump in the middle, like Odysses or whoever rode away on in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? WHen I was seven or so, dirty old railroad guys (probably blind) used to take us kids for rides, way down the rails and back! Closest I ever came to being a hobo. I LOVED it! My mother would have been horrified (if I’d ever told her)….

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    1. Wow. No, I don’t think there were any of those still in use on the Penn Central Railroad when we moved here in 1971 — at least, I have no recollection of them.

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