Sep. 26, 2009

Sound of the Night Train

by Pat Schneider

Only once in every twenty-four hours the train comes through
my town—in the dark, still center of the night. Sometimes I am
awake to hear it, its wail a long sound-tunnel back to another
time, another place.
           1934. Early March in southern Missouri, northern Arkansas.
The air cold, the night wind hard in the open doorway of a
boxcar headed south toward Louisiana.
           My mother told me this in the winter of her dying. Always
she said my father was just no good—her Ozark accent persisting
to the end: a woman warshed and rinched the clothes. A man
who didn't treat a woman right was just no good.
           It was the heart of the Depression, she said. I never did tell this
to anyone
I was so ashamed. We wanted to go to see Papa and
Mama in the Socialist Colony down in Louisiana, but we didn't
have any money. So we rode the rails. One night a man in the
boxcar with us said, "If y'all know what's good for you, you'll jump
right now." We were scared; we jumped. And me six months pregnant
with you. Isn't that awful?

           She lay very still then on her high hospital bed, the wedding
ring quilt she had pieced when her eyes were good pulled up
around her shoulders. What made me sad, listening to this story,
was the strangeness of my mother's not saying, He was just no
. For the first time in her eighty-six years she said, He was
good to me then. I was cold, and we were sleeping on the ground. He
covered me with leaves
. He covered her—covered me—with

"Sound of the Night Train", by Pat Schneider from Another River. © Amherst Writers and Artists Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of T.S. Eliot, (books by this author) born in St. Louis, Missouri (1888). His poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is one of the most anthologized poems in the English language. It begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Eliot wrote most of the poem when he was only 22 years old. While it was a work in progress, he subtitled the poem "Prufrock among the women." The part "The Love Song of" came from a Rudyard Kipling poem, "The Love Song of Har Dyal." At the time, T.S. Eliot went by "T. Sterns Eliot." a formulation that he emulated in the title "J. Alfred Prufrock." When he was growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, there was a furniture store there named "Prufrock-Littau Company" — but decades after the poem was published, Eliot wrote to a friend: "I did not have, at the time of writing the poem, and have not yet recovered, any recollection of having acquired this name in any way, but I think that it must be assumed that I did, and that the memory has been obliterated."

The poem was published a few years after it was written, with the encouragement of Ezra Pound, who was serving as Poetry magazine's overseas editor. He wrote in 1915 to Harriet Monroe about T.S. Eliot: "He has actually trained himself AND modernized himself ON HIS OWN. The rest of the promising young have done one or the other, but never both." Aside from stuff that had appeared in school newspapers and magazines, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was T.S. Eliot's first published poem. In 1917, it appeared in book form, the first of 12 Eliot poems in Prufrock and Other Observations.

Other famous poems by T.S. Eliot include "The Wasteland," which begins "April is the cruellest month" — and "The Hollow Men," which concludes:

This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper

It's the birthday of Jane Smiley, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles (1949). She's best known for her novel A Thousand Acres (1991), which begins, "At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute."

It's the birthday of composer George Gershwin, born in Brooklyn, New York (1898). He made his name as a composer with the piece Rhapsody in Blue (1924), when he was just 26 years old.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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