Main Trunk Lines: Collected Railway Poems by Michael O’Leary.
Wellington: HeadworX (2015).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Michael O’Leary is a well-known Paekakariki-based bookshop proprietor, novelist, poet and performer. His numerous publications include several volumes of poetry from HeadworX. O’Leary’s new book, Main Trunk Lines: Collected Railway Poems is the first to collect his entire oeuvre of New Zealand railway poems.
The book contains three sections: Livin’ in Aucklan’, Station to Station and Return Journeys. O’Leary’s poems take the reader on railway journeys, stopping from station to station, recording the life and times of the people and places around them.
Livin’ in Aucklan’ begins with the poem “Passing Young’s Lane”, written in couplets that move along to the rhythm of a train:
As the early morning train pulls out
Of Newmarket Station it dives down towards Auckland
Towards another working day: the bells ring
And the warning lights flash at Young’s Lane
In “Russian Roulette” the protagonist meets a Russian woman ‘off the train at Ellerslie station’, where they have coffee and he give her a ‘small package / wrapped like a lover’s gift,’ which contains tapes – though what is contained on the tapes is left to the reader’s imagination.
“Manukau Harbour” is a descriptive poem which looks at the view from a train window. Here we see the redundant freezing works, the re-aligned station and the “beauty of the natural cliffs / of the harbour heads / reflected in the stillness / of the Manukau Harbour.”
The title poem of this section “Livin’ in Aucklan’” recalls a two-minute trip to Avondale: ‘all too soon it is over.’ O’Leary tells us:
a railway is the most melancholy of transport modes
and when you are aboard
the motion is one of subtle love-making
as the train pulls out
from the station you stepped down at …
it is your lover leaving, rolling down the track
The central poem of the book is O’Leary’s sequence “Station to Station”, dedicated to the rock artist David Bowie. The poem contains 34 short poems, from “Paekakariki” to “Gisborne”. O’Leary is a trustee for the Paekakariki Station Museum and currently operates the Kakariki Bookshop next to the museum. There is no disputing the subject matter of these poems – the poet’s love of train journeys, the towns he passes through and the people he meets. O’Leary doesn’t bother with flashy descriptions, but does a solid job of telling the various stories of the places through which he travels. The poems introduce us to these stations so we can taste their history, beauty or the views from the train. Take for example the short poem “Paraparaumu”:
The statue of the Virgin rises up
Through the hillside vegetation
Like an ethereal vision –
The local train waits in the second platform
For the Auckland train to pass
Power pylons cross the landscape
The lurid blue house
On the way to Waikanae …
stands with cabbage trees
Or these lines from “Shannon”:
A flock of birds crosses the expansive inland sky
The distant ranges are bathed
In a long, diffuse ray of light.
In the Appendix to this section we read the following words:
The Cowan rendering of Māori station place names inspired Michael O’Leary’s six embellishments of these long forgotten stations and their translated meanings.
Following are three pages of waita – chants. Here are some lines from “te manga aho o te rerewe ki Picton”:
Clickety click, Karakiti karakati – KOROMIKO
Veronica, a plant by any other name would smell as well
Clickety clack, Karakiti karakiti – PARA
In my Father’s book there are many names, Yo!
The final section, Return Journeys, focuses on traditional poems and contains several sonnets. The first poem, “Disappearing Railroad Blues Sonnet” (thanks to Arlo and Woody), is concerned with the last Northerner overnight train service between Auckland and Wellington. It’s a lengthy trip which I’ve taken two of three times. O’Leary calls the loss of the overnight train “corporate vandalism”. While on the trip, he shows his new novel Unlevel Crossings to the train crew, who sign it for him –
so I have a lasting memento of the event and another
cross-over between working class and literary realities
In “To the S9 track gang” the poet dreams about the crew replacing sleepers, which ends with his death when he falls in front of a diesel engine:
I ran towards the thing waving wildly
Slipped and fell on ballast and sleepers
I could hear my screams as the iron wheels
Of the steadily slowing engine
And the rails on which it ran
Cut my young life in two.
“Five by Five” (The Hare Marches On) is a poem in five stanzas. It is a poem that links together a sequence of poems that together create the impression of a complete event or concept. In it the poet writes of meeting someone he knows:
The next time we met, he’d been on a journey
Of self discovery where he’d lost his wife
And children, and blown out his
Own navigation lights – he’d lost his bearings
I told him ‘Boats can fly!’
The use of sequences fits the collection’s overall intention to express momentous life events through small details, or vice versa, show how the small details accumulate to form life’s events.
“On the Death of Your Mother”, which with nine stanzas is one of the longest sequences, takes the approach to death through its stages to the mother’s resting place on the marae:
I didn’t need to go to the marae to farewell your mother
As I had planned: my role was yet again to support you
I cannot hold you …
So I take off the scarf till the next time we say goodbye
“From Auckland Revisited” contains eleven stanzas. From the first stanza where ‘My mind now wanders / and in those thoughts, wonders’ to the last ‘We travel the rail causeway, past Parnell Pool / And the bay of Judges, where / … we kept cool / All day, all summer long’). What could be more adventurous and awe-inspiring than spending a life travelling, O’ Leary seems to ask.
Even without the overt linking of these poems they would seem related as they come from the same perspective and voice. In “Head Lines Sonnet”, the speaker addresses his own state of being, internal, psychological and spiritual, questioning whether he can pass judgment on others: ‘you know / All the while, with a certain wry smile, your / Misdemeanours are written on your own face’. This dance between darkness and play is certainly part of O’Leary’s self-revelation. In “Hone Tuwhare: a personal memoir”, there is a sense of loss and loneliness that is expressed through figurative language that still expresses humour:
E hoa, you have gone to the place beyond
that tug-of-war which was your life: that
struggle between North and South, which
even continued after you were laid to rest.
In the final poem, “Paekakariki”, O’Leary writes a kind of love poem to his home base:
Moonlight shimmered brightly, dancing lightly
on the nightdark water
outside the cliff-descending train window
Muri and the taonga-filled memories of the
historic, present-day Paekakariki Station.
O’Leary’s stand-alone poems share the sequences’ effect of telling a large story through a singular moment. Each poem reads like a continuous story and deftly follows the poet’s admiration of trains. Whether he is writing about a mother’s death or the last train, each poem’s modest voice and simple presentation stand in contrast to the grandness of the primary subject matter. This diversity of style adds texture to the collection, showing that O’Leary is not only interested in railways and stations, but in the beauty of the landscape, in friends and in loved ones, which produce real strength in his work. These poems invite us into the world of an attentive observer whose intellect is as unrestricted as his language is precise.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako, reviews editor of Stylus, assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose.