When Trains Were New

Arrival of first train of Atlantic and Great Western Railroad
Arrival of the first train of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad (click to see full image)

When trains were new, you could still step
from tie to tie as if climbing stairs.
People stood at crossings & held up
handkerchiefs for the sheer delight
of seeing them flap in a man-made wind.
When trains were new, rails had yet
to merge in the distance — it was considered
unseemly. The first trainwreck
had yet to occur; war & storm
were still the best models for chaos.
In the middle of North America,
a Lakota shaman saw a bent column
of smoke approaching at great speed
& understood that the medium
was the signal (Burn!) & that bison
were no longer the only beasts
that could make the earth tremble.
In China & in Ireland, starving infants
could be heard for miles: a high, haunting wail
that had men reaching for their hats.
No one but an Indian ever welcomed
the sun, that old has-been,
rushing down its tunnel of sky.

9 Replies to “When Trains Were New”

  1. How odd, I’ve been just thinking about trains, that is the trains we took in the UK and the Eurostar to Paris recently, and how very common they are in Europe while here in Canada we are losing them. And now you’ve provoked thoughts on how terrifying the first trains in North America must have been to our first peoples.

    Then I check out ‘The Quickening’ link and with a shock of recognition see that I’m revisitng your wonderful poem, inspired by my interest in cave art! Thanks again, Dave.

    1. You’re losing them in Canada, too? Sad. It’s a trend we need to reverse, I think.

      Hmm, i’d fogotten about that poem, too. Glad those automatically generated “similar posts” links turn up interesting stuff. One of these days I’ll have to take a month off to read my own blog.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. You’ve created a great look at how others view a train. As I read this poem I was reminded of a place I visited last month called “Moonville”. All that remains now is two different train tunnels and tracks that have since been removed. Still, it gave one a sense of nostalgia. Have a great day.

    1. Hi Michelle – Thanks. Yeah, old tunnels can be pretty evocative. We have a lot of rail-trails around Pennsylvania, though I think some of them should be converted back into rail service.

  3. This one is brilliant — resonates in all kinds of directions. Hard for me to pick a favorite image. I’m fairly fond of the rails that find it unseemly to obey the laws of perspective. But I’m moved by that Lakota, too.

  4. I loved this, too. I was watching the film Dead Man last night and thinking about the apocalyptic, clattering, cagelike train in it. There’s a scene where the male passengers stand up and start shooing at buffalo from the windows. It feels like there’s an irony to your allusion to the bison no longer being the only forces to shake the earth. and to the Lakota shaman’s acknowledgment of that oncoming column of smoke. Thanks for this.

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