Dying To Read


Dying to Read

 Bumped off road service, I now work in a rail yard whose grind of switching two-hundred cars a night wears on my writer-ly faculties like chasing receding horizons on foot for hundreds of miles over undulating hills. Painstaking hours of back and forth movements order a few tracks, but there will be another two-hundred mixed-up rolling boxes and flats here tomorrow!

Rail yards are repositories for freight like writers’ journals for ideas. Our Muses stash troves of images, convictions and characters all destined for disparate directions. I remember the journals of my youth, how words flickered through my mind like the snapping air that animates a locomotive’s brake system…flicka-tick-tic, flicka/ flicka-tick/ tic, flick…also the desire to think Big Thoughts as relentless as rail converging on distant horizons. Then, the chasm between vibrant inward energies and the reality of what I could express primed me for the consolations of Bill Holm, an acquaintance of my father who let the windswept plains of southwestern Minnesota coax from his soul The Music of Failure (Plains Press, Southwest State University, Marshall, MN. 1985. (pg. 58-59):

“Above me, wind does its best

to blow leaves off the Aspen

tree a month too soon. No use

wind, all you succeed in doing

is making music, the noise

of failure growing beautiful. ”

Since my youth and Holm, I have been longing for someone of my generation to whose work I can say–This I’ve-been-dying-to-read!– and whose life proves that the heart’s extra-biological pulse and the desire to write die hard.  How apt then, that I was “dead” on a train when I began to read Poe Ballantine!

Every laborer wears down and sighs “I’m dyin’ here!” Trainmen die daily in a concrete, defined manner. We go to work whenever the Railroad calls, but federal statutes decree that twelve hours constitutes a tour-of-duty after which we can only wait until Management gets us off our train.

I began to read Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere (Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts. Portland, OR. 2013) after serving as a brakeman on a coal train, during a nineteen-hour shift, as that train’s sixth crew (two-hundred-sixteen man-hours to travel forty-six miles ). The ice-choked river nearby was no mere background for our endeavor, but communicated the Universe’s hostility to human effort, like the scrub pine through which Poe Ballantine searches for clues in the apparent homicide of his friend, Steven Haataja (pronounced Hah-de-ya).

Like Bill Holm, Poe Ballantine relishes the ironies of taking a creative stand in the midst of desolate plains and a town unlikely ever to intrigue scions of culture.   As I followed the trail of Mr. Ballantine’s True Crime saga, I felt the edges of my mouth widen with recognition. Was it necessary for Mr. Haataja to die in order for Ballantine’s art to thrive?  The relationship between literature and life is fraught not “inspiring” the way English teachers make it sound.  If we aren’t dying to read and striving against forces threatening to snuff out our spark, are we living?


All images from the series A Period Of Juvenile Prosperity 2006-2009 © Mike Brodie, Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery / Yossi Milo Gallery


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About Lemsford

Literary dilettante. Swamp dwelling Railroader.