Poetry: Ghost Train to Australia | clivejames.com
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Ghost Train to Australia

(Container Train in Landscape, 1983-84, by Jeffrey Smart)

I won’t this time. Silent at last and shunted
Into its siding in the Victorian Arts Centre,
The container train started its journey in Yugoslavia
Two years before it arrived in Gippsland
Among trees that echo Albert Namatjira.

The containers echo First World War dazzle paint
Whose solid planes of colour fooled submarines.
Everything in the picture echoes something,
Yet it all belongs to the painter’s unifying vision.
How does he do that? Perhaps as a consolation

For not being Piero della Francesca
And lacking Christ’s birth to celebrate in Arezzo,
He can alter the order of modern history’s pages
Though we might need our memories to catch him in the act:
All trains in Europe, for example, even today,

When they are drawn by electric locos and made of metal,
Remind us of boxcars full of unbelieving people
And the scenes on the platform when the train pulled in.
No amount of lusciously applied colour
Can cover all that stark grey squalor up

Or take away the shadow on a train’s fate.
Simply because it is a European train,
Even if it goes all the way to Australia
And terminates among the eucalypts
In a lake of perfect sunlight the whole sky deep

And everybody gets off and there are no searchlights
Or whips or wolf-hounds or cold-eyed efficient doctors
And the fathers go to work on the Snowy River
And the mothers learn the lemon meringue pie
And the children, after they have had their tonsils out,

Get Shelley’s lemonade and vanilla ice-cream
And all grow up to be captain of the school,
And the local intellectuals fly in like fruit-bats
To lecture the new arrivals about genocide,
The train, the train, the wonderful train

That found visas for all aboard and now finally sits
Shining in the bush like five bob’s worth of sweets–
Jaffas, Cherry Ripes, Hoadley’s Violet Crumble Bars
Glittering in the original purple and gold wrappers–
Is still the ghost train. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.

(Australian Book Review, April 2008)