Monday, September 23, 2013

The 5th Annual Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge: The Twelve-Forty-Five

Ever since I first heard of Bill West's Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge some years ago, I've wanted to participate. It just so happens that my favorite poet of all time is local to the area where I grew up, and where my parents live, and where my grandparents lived, so he fulfills the requirements of the challenge, in that he is from the region where my ancestors were from. (Don't tell my parents I'm calling them my "ancestors.") He also has so many poems which, I believe, speak to universal themes by illustrating them with the towns I grew up in - so many amazing candidates for this challenge!

And yet, every year, I have missed the Challenge. I've seen the early announcement, and decided to post closer to the deadline so I can be more timely, and I have never, ever done it. So this year, who cares that I'm 3 months before the deadline? I'm posting a freakin' poem. 

That favorite poet of mine is Joyce Kilmer, who lived in Mahwah, NJ. I grew up in New York, but only miles from the NJ border, and Kilmer belonged to my childhood church, Sacred Heart Church in Suffern, NY. (Our local Knights of Columbus chapter is the Joyce Kilmer Council, because Kilmer was a member in its early days.)

There are plenty of Kilmer poems for me to choose from, and I may post more in future years. For this year, though, I've chosen to highlight "The Twelve-Forty-Five," which was published in his most well-known work, 1914's Trees and Other Poems. (The Kindle version is currently free on Amazon!)

"The Twelve-Forty-Five"
Within the Jersey City shed
The engine coughs and shakes its head,
The smoke, a plume of red and white,
Waves madly in the face of night.
And now the grave incurious stars
Gleam on the groaning hurrying cars.
Against the kind and awful reign
Of darkness, this our angry train,
A noisy little rebel, pouts
Its brief defiance, flames and shouts -
And passes on, and leaves no trace.
For darkness holds its ancient place,
Serene and absolute, the king
Unchanged, of every living thing.
The houses lie obscure and still
In Rutherford and Carlton Hill.
Our lamps intensify the dark
Of slumbering Passaic Park.
And quiet holds the weary feet
That daily tramp through Prospect Street.
What though we clang and clank and roar
Through all Passaic's streets? No door
Will open, not an eye will see
Who this loud vagabond may be.
Upon my crimson cushioned seat,
In manufactured light and heat,
I feel unnatural and mean.
Outside the towns are cool and clean;
Curtained awhile from sound and sight
They take God's gracious gift of night.
The stars are watchful over them.
On Clifton as on Bethlehem
The angels, leaning down the sky,
Shed peace and gentle dreams. And I -
I ride, I blasphemously ride
Through all the silent countryside.
The engine's shriek, the headlight's glare,
Pollute the still nocturnal air.
The cottages of Lake View sigh
And sleeping, frown as we pass by.
Why, even strident Paterson
Rests quietly as any nun.
Her foolish warring children keep
The grateful armistice of sleep.
For what tremendous errand's sake
Are we so blatantly awake?
What precious secret is our freight?
What king must be abroad so late?
Perhaps Death roams the hills to-night
And we rush forth to give him fight.
Or else, perhaps, we speed his way
To some remote unthinking prey.
Perhaps a woman writhes in pain
And listens - listens for the train!
The train, that like an angel sings,
The train, with healing on its wings.
Now "Hawthorne!" the conductor cries.
My neighbor starts and rubs his eyes.
He hurries yawning through the car
And steps out where the houses are.
This is the reason of our quest!
Not wantonly we break the rest
Of town and village, nor do we
Lightly profane night's sanctity.
What Love commands the train fulfills,
And beautiful upon the hills
Are these our feet of burnished steel.
Subtly and certainly I feel
That Glen Rock welcomes us to her
And silent Ridgewood seems to stir
And smile, because she knows the train
Has brought her children back again.
We carry people home - and so
God speeds us, wheresoe'er we go.
Hohokus, Waldwick, Allendale
Lift sleepy heads to give us hail.
In Ramsey, Mahwah, Suffern stand
Houses that wistfully demand
A father - son - some human thing
That this, the midnight train, may bring.
The trains that travel in the day
They hurry folks to work or play.
This midnight train is slow and old
But of it let this thing be told,
To its high honor be it said
It carries people home to bed.
My cottage lamp shines white and clear.
God bless the train that brought me here.

What I love about this poem is that I've taken that same train. Kilmer was taking it in the 1910s, and I was taking it in the 2000s when meeting friends during college, or living with my parents and commuting to a summer job in the city, or even now when going home to visit my parents. The stops are all the same. Joyce Kilmer didn't have a cell phone, but I know that I can call my parents' house and say, "We're at Allendale" and they know - and I know - just how long it will be until I'm disembarking and in need of a ride home. Kilmer must have known, too, though he probably just got off the train and walked home by himself.

Although I don't think the 12:45 is the last train out of New Jersey any longer, I've taken those middle of the night trains, too. When, during college, I visited friends in NYC but stayed at my parents house, or on those summer Fridays when I went out for drinks after work, or on trips home for the holidays when I took a train into Manhattan and then another, later, train home to the suburbs. Though I was never working the late-night shift, and though my neighbors were as often drunken high school students as world-weary workers, I love how this poem places such importance on bringing us all home where we belong, and how relatable it is, to me, given that Kilmer's train and mine were speeding us to the same place.

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Michelle Thiele said...

Too cool! I wouldn't have known that poem was written a hundred years ago!

Bill West said...

Kathleen, I'm glad you finally were able to post for the Challenge. Great poem and I'll think of it the next time I ride the trains up here in New England.

Thymmicks 2050anks again for participating!