by Joseph Baldwin
In that part of Tennessee, the train rocked
like a vessel on a storm-tossed ocean:
outside, red clay banks rose and fell away with
green meadows humped up in great muffin-like swells
and then fell off to nothing;
the horizon was going up and down.
Trees walked along the ridges;
the child saw them as dark muttering giants
keeping a menacing pace with the tall windows,
seeming to march with the train for a while,
then only reluctantly falling behind and away.
The child — rocked, lulled — heard
the french-harp whistle up ahead
and stared at the custard-colored ceiling
from which hung clusters of tulip-star lamps
and wondered at the rich, edible color
and the sweet lights’ glowing in day-time.
until life paused, and he slept,
cradled in good: the train.
Awakened in Virginia by this warning:
Don’t mention the train to Grandma.
– Grandmother, bed-ridden now fifteen years,
victim of a train-wreck in Kentucky, a collision,
and of the dark business (so the story went)
of company representatives picking their way
among the wreckage, getting release forms signed
by the dazed injured people, she one of the cheated:
the family grudge told over and over, but resisted
by the child.
Too soon, too soon in life to learn
of evil lurking in beauty; not for the child
to know of the copperhead coiled beneath flowers
waiting to fang his mother’s hand reaching for eggs
in the “stolen” nest; also, he shut his ears against
his cousins’ warnings about stings waiting
among blackberry bushes. These were gashes in
a world which should be sure, and whole.
For Grandma (propped up in her bed)
he sang about Jesus
and recited his poem and was kissed; earned back
his homeward journey in the train — trusting,
surrendered to the green seat’s swaying,
hearing the voices of wheels and rail-joints
and the complaints of bonded wood and iron
working upon each other in the inmost secret
coach-parts like the creaking of oaken ships’ timbers.
The pauses in life, the on-going lulls
of journeys, not the arrivals: these
he would love, life-long. He knew this
in secret; clutched it close against reproof.