Murals

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Murals
McAdam Railway Station #11

Painting a mural,
inside, interior
wall, knowing it will
stand time’s test.

Viaduct broken,
a tumbled engine,
Canadian workers,
railwaymen all,

some from Macadam,
pebbled the floor,
handrail, radiator
camouflaged for war,

part of the painting.
Depart from the station.
Turn right. Straight ahead,
flaked peeling paint.

So sad, this outside
mural, exposed to winter’s
snow, frost, winds, and ice.
So vulnerable

and so ephemeral.
Such a short-lived
summer, over in a day.
Butterfly on a rock.

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Comment: This sequence comes from the indoor and outdoor work (murals) of my friend Geoff Slater. Geoff told me how ephemeral were the outdoor murals with a life-span of about ten years before they needed redoing. After that, the paint starts to fade, then crack, then dry and peel away. Our Canadian winters with their icy cold and the ensuing springs with their frost and thaw do not help. The protection, no ice, no snow, no sun, no rain, afforded to the interior murals means that they will last so much longer. Our outdoor art, unless cast in the firmest stone, is ephemeral. Like a butterfly, it will not last much longer than a brief summer day. Hence the final metaphor.

Faces

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Faces
McAdam Railway Station #10

“White at windows
when trains pass through
in June on their way
to summer and sand.

Wind-tousled, tanned
at summer’s end
returning home to
Boston and Montreal.

I remember them
waving their hands,
flickering white hankies
as they went by.

This station is a ghost train
that travels through time
instead of space. Stand
still as silent stone. Wait.

Look: there’s someone,
waving at us now
from that window
on the second floor.”

 

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Hospital

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Hospital
McAdam Railway Station #9

“I was here the day they
took the hospital away.
I gave some writing workshops.
Teachers upset, students in tears,

everywhere, fear and despair.
‘I was born in that hospital.’
‘My grandfather died there.’
‘Where will my child be born?’

I helped them write down
their memories and fears,
their hopes and dreams.
My lesson plans vanished.

How could they survive
when life’s rising tide
broke all bulwarks,
flooded open hearts.

A wounded community,
diminished by its loss,
they took me into their hearts.
Their loneliness wrapped me.

They wrote down memories.
Tears stained every page.”

Comment: This is one of my memories of being in McAdam. I was invited to run a series of writing workshops there, under the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick  (WFNB) WiSP (Writers in Schools Program). I arrived there the week the announcement was made that the local hospital would close. I remember all too well the effect that this announcement had on the local community and I have tried to express that anger, sorrow, despair, fear, resentment in the above poem. More than anything, I felt the sorrow and despair of students and teachers. It is so easy to make an executive decision, at a distance, to rip the beating heart out of a living community on financial grounds. It is so difficult to revive the patient after the act of removal. What amazes me about McAdam is the effort hat volunteers are making to rebuild their town. Their words and deeds are truly impressive: as impressive as their magnificent railway station, now declared a national heritage site.

S.O.S

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S. O .S.
McAdam Railway Station #8

“Dozing in the cab, I was.
Smelt a different smoke.
It wasn’t my engine’s.

Looked around.
Saw flames. One, two,
three houses on fire.

Steam was up. Yessir.
Three short hoots I gave.
Three long. Three short.

S.O.S. Mayday. Mayday.
S.O.S. S.O.S. Kept going
till house lights came on.

People running. Leaving homes.
Jumped out of the cab.
Ran out to help them.

They thanked me.
Said I had saved their lives.
What else could I have done?”

Comment: This is a third hand poem. It came to me from Geoff who heard the story from the hardware store owner who witnessed the fire. The narrator is the anonymous engine driver who raised the alarm. Of course I don’t know exactly what he did, said, or thought. Our knowledge of history can be divided into two great moments: the momentous events, recorded by expert historians via diligent research, and intra-historia, as Miguel de Unamuno, that great Spanish philosopher and rector of Salamanca University called it, referring to those small, individual moments when history is made by anonymous human beings who did what they had to do and then faded into the anonymity of a distant past, now wrapped in silence, as is the store-keeper and the driver of the train.

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Shunting

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Shunting
McAdam Railway Station # 7

So many memories
cling like hobos
to freight trains.

Tracks as always,
sleepers, steel rails
an optical illusion,

joining in the distance
where the miles
between now and then

knit themselves together
and we are young once more,
riding the rails,

dreaming of towns
beyond this town,
dreaming of the future,
not the past.

Comment: This is one of my own memories. We lived by the railway yards in Swansea and again in Cardiff. The trains were a regular part of my dreams. I lay awake one night waiting for the 3:20 to London, but it never came. I couldn’t sleep, waiting for that train. Next day I learned that there had been a railway accident. When I returned to boarding school after the holidays, I would lie awake at night waiting for trains that never arrived. We had a track close to the school, but we called it the Beetle Crusher because it was old and rusty and used so rarely that the beetles, who never knew when it was coming, would get crushed when it arrived. I have written a book about that train and that school, but I have yet to publish it. When I was very young and we travelled to London on the Great Western Railway (GWR) train from Swansea High Street, we had to go up to the engine driver and say ‘hello’. And then we had to thank the engine before we set off. Iron, steam, coal, inanimate to many perhaps, but live living animated beings young children who sat, like our ancestors in Gower caves, and watched the pictures the sea-coal flames painted in the fire.

Volunteers

 

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Volunteers
McAdam Railway Station 6

Only the old in body
and young at heart know
how to cook like this.

The soda fountain stools,
the horseshoe bar
from the old Royal York,

they merit only the best.
Simplicity rules. Stews
like grandma made them,

lining the ribs,
defying damp and cold.
Railway Pie, recipes

a hundred years old, or more.
bread rolls that melt
into the butter knife,

coffee to kill for. No wonder
the old ghosts walk around
feeding off cooking smells,

sad, gentle eyes, watching us
as we eat, refusing to leave.

Comment: That’s the end of the Railway Pie, I’m afraid. The soup has already vanished. Three lucky people, arriving on cooking day, and receiving a free lunch. What joy, what delight. The volunteers were cooking for another event, outside the station, which was not yet open. Old ghosts watched from quiet corners as we ate. I am sure those spirits survive on the wonderful cooking smells that emerge. I should add how impressed I am at the knowledge displayed by the volunteers at McAdam Railway Station. They now only have their facts at their fingertips, but hey are able to express those facts in a way that draws the audience in and makes every visit a genuine pleasure. Volunteers: thank you for being there. You do a great job.

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Master Clock

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Master Clock
McAdam Railway Station 4

“It came from the Empress,
in Victoria. It won’t work here,
I’m afraid. It’s the clock
that runs all the clocks
and keeps them on time.

It needs a network.
ten, twenty, thirty clocks
that it can control
from its central circuit,
keeping them all on time.

Just like the railway.
The trains were always on time.
Except, just like this clock,
they don’t run anymore.”

Comment: I don’t have a picture of the Master Clock at McAdam Railway Station. I guess I’ll have to take one next time I visit McAdam. This clock can be found in the dining room. Like the Master Clock, it too has stopped. Known in Wales as Grandmother Clocks, these pendulum clocks are designed to hang on the wall rather than to stand on the floor like Grandfather Clocks. Can a Grandmother Clock be a Master Clock? I’ll leave that semantic conundrum to the experts in linguistics. While they are all arguing about it, I will just say that Elsie, who else, told the story of the Master Clock to a group of tourists from Nova Scotia while I was listening.