First, there’s the gentle rumble of the train cars
over the rails beneath you, like the motion of a sailboat
on anchor, or a babe in the arms of a slightly nervous
new mom, after nursing. Then there is memory:
my grandmother’s railroad widow pass got me started
early, when she and I could ride to New York for free.
The stories of her husband Jack, a clerk sent out
to document accidents on the Pennsy line, and the note
I later found in her rosary case: Please release my paycheck
to my wife. I’ll be in the hospital for few days’ rest. He died
at fifty-one while my mom was carrying me, his first
grandchild. These rail ties go even further back.
Jack’s father, a boiler maker from County Cork
may have died in an explosion as some remember,
or died of pneumonia later — my dad’s account.
We think we’re heartier now, my folks living
into their eighties, working a decade longer
than their parents lived. My work on the rails
is writing. The motion of the train conjures rivers
and industrial backsides of Bridgeport and Philly,
Baltimore and Newark in me, with Elizabeth’s
shingled houses guarding their secrets, and stevedores
dozing in port while tankers line the Delaware
like rosary beads. My six decades of memory string
the gritty mysteries of heartache to the joyful ones
of riverside celebrations, and the mixed landscapes
of junked cars awaiting the crusher, with the new
condos rising in an autumn palate among severed
smokestacks — my own losses mingle with other
histories of birth and death, piled like road salt
or gravel along the sidings. Or collected,
like those pebbles we left to be blessed
where Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train would pass
near Claymont, us waiting for even a glimpse
of his widow and grieving family, our own lives
rubbed raw like those pebbles, under the weight —
the motion of the northbound train.
Kathleen O’Toole has combined a more than forty year professional life in community organizing with teaching and writing. Her creativity was nurtured in a family of actors in Wilmington Delaware, and her interest in poetry deepened while living in Philadelphia in the 1980’s. Since receiving her MA from Johns Hopkins University her poems have appeared widely in magazines and journals including America, Atlanta Review, Christian Century, Margie, Northern Virginia Review, Notre Dame Review, Poetry, Poetry East, Potomac Review, Prairie Schooner and Smartish Pace. Her books of poetry include a chapbook, Practice, and Meanwhile.