Trains are the most literary form of travel, other than walking, of course. Old automobiles come close, only close. As much as I love airplanes they’re thin in literary emotion. There was a time ships were literary. That time has sailed, pun intended.
Somewhere in a box, perhaps at the bottom of the hallway closet, there’s a photograph of Patrick R. Ballogg on a train. We were travelling from Vicenza, Italy, to Garmish, Germany. It was a long time ago. Patrick is smiling. A bottle of Tanqueray on the table beside him. I was sitting opposite. Soft winter light illuminates the side of his face. I haven’t seen the photograph in years but seem to think a young woman is sitting next to him. Trains. Another young woman sat next to me, and like me, is not in the photograph. Trains.
Trains muscle their way through distance. Trains are best experienced at night. I should have mentioned it earlier, but electric trains are not as high on the literary ladder of resonance. The exception are subways when the train struggles through a tunnel and the lights go out.
George Stephenson was born in 1781, on June ninth. Years later he invented the steam locomotive engine. He named his first one “Blucher.” It pulled eight loaded coal wagons weighing thirty tons four hundred and fifty feet at four miles an hour. The men who shoveled the coal must have been buried with the black dust of that day.
Men working on railroads seldom go to hell once they die. Yes, some are horrible, sinful people, so there is no explanation for this. Nor for the reason that Frank Sinatra collected model electric trains. Actually had a cottage devoted to them on his Rancho Mirage property.
Moonlight pulls the smoke from steam engines at night. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.
I’ve never written on a train. I have on an airplane but it wasn’t a very good poem. I often think of taking a journey on a train just to revise that poem. The fact that more poets have died on trains than airplanes is not preventing this. Other things are. Destinations are often a triggering event for travel, trains. In my version of the world they are not a requirement.
Every time a ship sinks there will be a train crash in nine days within eleven hundred miles of that ship’s port of departure. Harold L. Watson convinced me that this is a proven fact. He spent many years as an executive in railroad companies and was in three emergency meetings to discuss precautions after a ship sank. Railroad companies try to keep this secret. But when I told Harold L. Watson I was writing about how trains inform poetry he thought it would be a fitting way for the public to learn of this danger. Poetry has always been good for this sort of warning. A thought from me, not Harold L. Watson.
Rick Bursky’s most recent collection is* I’m No Longer Troubled by the Extravagance* (BOA Editions, 2015). His next, Where the Ocean Spills Its Grief, is forthcoming from BOA. His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, AGNI, Harvard Review, FIELD, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. (updated 4/2018)