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Sketches on a Train

This was the best way
this way beyond cities
and any possible corners of meeting,
this system of straightforward lines

simply connecting A and B, then B and C,
now to next, name to name,
pencil marks on a list of stations.
This is what I needed.

I’ve surrendered navigation of the coming days,
knowing nothing but the sound of each destination
in the conductor’s mouth. I cannot care
for the how of getting there.

By air I would arrive too quickly
to walk on solid ground.
I need to move forward
by another volition.

The rails are like a river, deepset, meandering,
out of time, out of place,
yet natural to the landscape.
I search for myself among the coupled cars.


I stagger down the middle of the train car like a drunk
barely able to navigate against
the random motion beneath my feet.
My hands move from headrest to headrest,
the clown dance of an unskilled skier.
I must concentrate just to keep my balance.
Yes, balance becomes the worthy goal for a mind
lost in the greater imbalance of loneliness.

Bodies are strewn across crowded seats,
curled up in waiting.
A little girl holds a doll to the window,
showing it the mountain peaks,
spinning myths like a travel guide.
I feel like the doll in arms, button-eyed,
smiling from habit, refusing to blink,
unable to respond in a human way.

Others sprawl, not noticing, as I pass.
Toddlers with straight little backs
that know no weight or worry.
The luxurious moistness of infants napping.
The smooth bodies of teens, taut serpents
coiling around their belongings.
The relaxed shoulders of sleeping elders,
poised as if sleep were an art.
So many books opened, eyes transfixed,
minds caught in stories far beyond the window's view.
Everyone on a journey.
How often do we realize this,
acting, instead, as if we have arrived, when all along
we are merely on the way? Somehow,
this makes uncertainty easier to bear.


There are no businessmen,
as on a plane, busied and self-contained.
Not in this slow motion dreaming machine
from a distant century when
thoughts and wonder had time to place themselves
like a child's tug, like a child's "why?"
between moments of less rich commerce.

Only travelers. Patient and quiet and a little grimy.
Iconoclasts in this age of instant and well laundered money.


A mother sits stony-eyed
face and expression no longer one
flesh as pale as a wedding veil
not as smooth as it once was
like the laced white dress left
on the floor beside the celebration bed.

She sits like a cushion
propped and forgetful
as her child rides her
exploring each button
like a precious toy
each crease and fold
like a wrinkle of magic
each soft white place
a destination for his touch.

Mother and child,
passing time in opposite directions.


An old man dozes,
rooster head flopping
back and forth
as if at sea,
jaw slack and prickly
like a corpse tucked away
in a box of floating pine.

What dreams prance
out of that rough wooden ark
now grounded again for a moment
in the peace of private pretending?
What happy menagerie of
once and future life
steps down the ramp
onto the soft new earth?

We are never old in our dreams
even when sitting stiff-kneed
peering out of swiftly racing windows
onto the destinations of other lives,
the flooded plains of promised lands.
Even when we know
this storm is no ordinary

We are never old.


Twisting her rings
on twisted hands
each memory lines up again
like flagstones along the walk.
Her fingers touch the worn edges
as her husband once did,
an accountant tapping the keys,
calculating into the wee hours.

She invokes the familiar motion
to see if the sum equals the same
again and nods, wishing nothing


Another with a birthmark on her face
identical to the one I hide beneath my shirt
safe from view.

But she wears hers for all to see,
the inversion of a mask,
heart’s blood upon the skin,
and it wrinkles into laughter
as her smile draws out
the full length of her mouth.

A poet face.

I find my berth and stow my bags,
taking out my pen and paper,
finally ready to bare my face
at least on the page.


Out the window
long stretches of green
and more green and more.
Then a cluster of homes,
a junkyard, parked cars, a baseball diamond.
And more green, stretching.

How huddled together we are.
Tiny knots and knots within knots.
While in its center,
tied and distracted as we are,
so wrapped in maps and plans and
turns of the rope,
the world around plays out in our palms
like magician’s coins,
the same face on each side.

But from here,
from this place of never stopping,
this insular train car on its singular track,
from this vagabond and rootless tribe,
I see only clusters,
neat and safe and quieted, with
one filament of wire connecting town to town
strung up on crosses of wood
marking the way. And I think
how this magnetism of humanity

And how this
speed of travel


We’ve stopped on a bridge
in the middle of nowhere
(from some certain perspective)
without explanation or warning.

An unknown river of pink and peach
(known well enough by the egrets)
swirls into the blue beneath,
and as I watch from my silver perch
night pulls out from the distance mountains
a tidal darkness I know too well.

The engine of the world winds down.

We sit too long for some,
as worried heads begin to speak
of mechanical failures in tones of abandonment.
I watch like one removed,
like the egret.

Here, the stillness touches me.
I am not running now. The train, the earth, the sky
I am not running. As if the eye of my life
sees out from that place which refuses to move. Wings unfolding
in a crowded chest.

All engines down,
a forgotten silence the only element
in the stuffy air. And I, listening.

A jerk and thump and sudden discharge
from the overhead cooling fans
sets the passengers to
reset their pillows and blankets.
We move again.

I imagine that, for a moment,
the conductor could not go on,
stopped by the beauty of this place.


It has been a long journey. But time heals nothing,
it only helps us forget. Enables us to feel less.
To feel things through the filter of rationalizations.
Through the filter of poor memory. If I could only sleep,
perhaps the act of waking would cleanse me


I love it when the train turns sharply enough
so that the engine and all the long silver array
of cars can be seen from my sun-scarred window.
I know for a moment what I am connected to,
the machine that pulls and houses me,
the track that has chosen my way.
The context of my escape,
my surrender.


I feel I am on a wave-track,
rafting down the Columbia River Gorge.
The train glides along nearly at water level,
carved walls of the canyons revealing themselves
like the weathered torsos of saints.
Saints with no eyes or mouths,
only faith great enough to move me
one to the next
keeping me afloat
like a boat christened by the wine of exhaustion
ready to sail into a face-filled world
awash in too many eyes and mouths.

And what runs past my ears is
not prayer or longing; rather, simple silly play.
"Yessir. Yessir. But you
gotta know the territory."
The absurdity of my mind,
laughing and earnest,
breaks the seal.
And the rhythm of the train transforms into
the breathing of a mother.

I feel like I want to find my legs again.


Reaching the coast, I leave the train behind, choosing
to walk the remaining miles to the ocean,
thinking this is needed to somehow complete
my journey.

There is relief and energy in the physical effort,
the steady pace, the purposeful striding.

The sound of the surf, nearing, is so much more
elegant and alive than the train's randomness,
as if there is some innate, transcendent form within
the rhythms. As if I don't even need
to listen in order to hear.

Close to water's edge the firm ground gives way
to sand, making each step an increasing effort.
Then I am at the end, toes to the shoreline,
no more room for running.

I let the freezing tongue of the sea wet my shoes
as the tide rises toward me. I wait until my feet are numb
before sliding to my knees, realizing how lost
to you, how lost to myself, I have fallen. Feeling nothing
but the end. The ocean of end.

A memory, still bright as clouds, forms in white:
I kneel before you, I
playing the sea and you the land. And
all I want is to bathe you in pleasure.
What a joy these gifts are, given back in waves.
Then you become the ocean and break me
on my own ragged shoreline, your mouth
covering me soft as foam, your tidal gasps
pulling at my marrow. I am no longer
a shoreline holding these holy motions,
but lost to the surf, rising, falling. Each wave
high and higher against the rocks, louder
in my ears, and I am caught
in the undertow, too full of breath to breathe.

Spent, no more salt to give, I stop
my tears and turn, facing myself.
The beach is beautiful of its own accord,
no metaphors or memories needed, only itself.
The sand is framed by dark brown cliffs,
resembling the ribs of a whale. Gnarled trees
bent by the permanent wind fringe the top.
I find my way to the path and shake off the sand,
letting the sun dry my limp clothing.


The shell of my soul carries you inside
like the call of the ocean,
constant and unwearied.
You are a part of me. You cannot be removed.
I realize now I do not want to.

It is time to stop trying.

It is time to do more than move from A to B.
It is time simply to grow again,
even in this permanent wind.

A distant train whistle extends the sound
of shell and surf. And I. Yes,
the journey. There are no destinations,
only travels between.

Traveling: Sketches on a Train © 2000 by Tobin James Mueller
"Falling Past Love" published by ArtsForge Press.
All rights reserved.