Song of the Southern Pacific

(30 January - 20 March 1991) after Sidney Lanier

It’s been long enough, the millions and millions are almost gone, the millions for whom the railroad meant freedom, the millionaires who sold it to the corporation. The state will be buying it and we can start over, straightening the tracks, building up the beds, washing the urine smells from the corners of the stations. When the railroad was young, the farmer didn’t bring his wheat to mill, the rancher didn’t bring his beef to slaughter, except by the railroad. If the railroad charged the price of the crop, then the bank in town would offer a mortgage for the land, and the money would come from the railroad. If an owner of the railroad were to run for the Senate, all the bankers would support him. The gaunt giant would not die after they had taken all it had. It ranged over the countryside, and the cities rushed out to surround it and keep it from falling. You don’t think of it for what it is, but for how it affects you— a nuisance to cross, a noise at night, something you can pay to use. You don’t need to worry for it to take you where it wants to go. But it’s a machine that stretches for miles and miles over gravelled beds, rusted tracks, iron signals. It is a thin line, a demarcation between the one and the many. Up from the peninsula, into the heart of the city, commuters wait at the stations with coffee mugs and briefcases, regally sit to read their papers as bells clang, cars halt, at the crossings children press their faces against the windows of the school bus, growing the train in their imaginations, out of the heart of the city, and down the peninsula.