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Callaloo 23.1 (2000) 48-49
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Women on Trains *
Part 1: In the Family
Leaving my sisters for another city
the club-car smells of old velvet
rails whisper relief mantras
round steel upon steel
every fourth thud breaks the hum
"Stand and fight" I said
leaving my words for ransom
"that is the only way out."
This train is a doorway
bent into the shape
of a scale.
Eleanor Roosevelt riding the rails
behind her husband's casket
forefinger tense along the propped cheek
one knuckle caressing her lips
young Nell's dreams strung along
sentinel stalks of mullein
in the whip of the journey's wind
my mother's mandatory hat
at a no-nonsense tilt
in the tenement windows of wartime
scanning Lenox Avenue
for a coal-delivery truck.
Women on trains
have a life that is
the precision of days flashing past
no intervention allowed [End Page 48]
shapes of each season
relentlessly carved in the land.
I have soared over crannied earth
spread like a woman waiting
but this line of sky anchors me
through the ugliness
shards of bright fireweed loosestrife
stacks of heat-treated lumber and beyond
the bare arms of scrub-maple and poplar
Was it ever business as usual for these women
as snow-driven hopes and fears swirled
past the tenement office window
and nappy-topped stands of unreachable trees
flowed along in the southern dusk?
The coal-truck arrived after dark
barely half-a-ton of dusty bituminous
she had to shovel herself
in the freezing Harlem night
coal dusted my mother's tired hat
as the subway screamed us home.
Women on trains have a chance
to unweave their tangles
perhaps between Blythe and Patchoula
Eleanor chose to live her own days
but the subway-tunnel walls
closed in like thunder
and my mother never had a chance
to lay her magic down.
Between new lumber and the maples
I rehear your question owning
the woman who breaks the woman
who is broken
I have counseled a sister unwisely
to be who I am no longer
willing to be for my living
stopgap hurled into the breech
I search the rushing sun-dark trees
for your phone-number
to acknowledge you and I
are free to go.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992), who died of cancer in the Virgin Islands, is author of more than eight volumes of poems and four collections of essays, including Zami, Chosen Poems: Old and New, A Burst of Light, Sister Outsider, and Our Dead Behind Us. She taught at Tougaloo College (Mississippi), John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Hunter College.
* Copyright © 1990 by Audre Lorde.