‘A Woman on the Edge’ – Railway poetry

by Marie Marshall

Railway footbridge, Perth.

My careful paces, three to the second, carry me
across the worn, regular plates of the footbridge; a slight give,
spring, a dull noise that dies, and if I pause to look
over the rail into the slack, dark backwater,
the black-to-silver flash of heron-bait fry
flickers against the turvy tree and the negative sky.

I know that by the hedges at the far side of the bridge,
where an old gate leans, black flies will be haze-hanging,
trailing their lazy legs in the air, and that I might be taken
by the sudden ambiguity of a butterfly, resting
on a stoical stone, all red-gold-in-shadow.

Yet to come, but first a one-boy riot of slapping trainers
in a terrified sprint to win the far side before a train comes,
oh the clangour of drowned bells his feet make; be quick, be quick!
Who knows what cracks may open and
what worlds may be tumbled into if the monster should arrive;
would the boy be left senseless, eyes a-distance,
or a wicked, smiling changeling, or a pair of empty shoes?
Is there such magic, such old, unwritten wizardry in the everyday places?
I have no idea, but he has me running fit-to-win as well!

The view from a train

Travelling by rail gives me views I am not supposed to have. Human activity and urban sensibility demand that I approach by road, on foot or by car, and see the face that places want to project – the front of a house, the shop façade, the planned vista. The railway, on the other hand, ignores convention and ducks around the side and back, and for all that impoliteness it barges through in a straight line or at best in a gentle and graceful curve as though ignoring the things it passes. But surely things were built this way? Surely the railway was here before the majority of the landmarks of the townscape?  Maybe. Nevertheless even the Georgian villas present the reverse of their wooden fences to me, the obverse being a quiet component of a garden. It is not the train that sees things at all, it doesn’t care a jot for the intrusion, its progress is a linear dance to the tune of its diesel motor and the rhythms of the track. It is I who am the voyeur, keeking at the dirty underwear of the town. The town doesn’t care. It was built this way, showing its bent and ugly back to the travelers, showing us contempt. “I shall show hoi polloi my arse! Folk of quality roll up to my front door by carriage, knock, present a gilt-edged card. Only the ragged are shuttled behind me. If they demand respect, let them come by foot and see my porticos, my pediments, my railings of wrought iron.”

Not that we notice, of course. Newspaper, book, and now laptop, iPod, iPhone, iPad, tablet, gamer… only the indolent (me) technophobe (me) lexophobe (me) looks out of the window,


sometimes the town shuts with a bang. Someone has built a new housing estate that just out into the countryside. Its edge is as sharp as a kitchen-knife, and the green field full of sheep with dirty wool and patches of reddle leaps up at me immediately the instant I pass in the train. Whose idea was this insanity? Who decreed that there should be no debatable area but instead of that an ugly, stark interface?

There is a pick-up-sticks of broken doors,
poles, planks, grey and shadowed in angularity;
my head turns in direct proportion
to the speed of the train, and the sight is lost…

unless of course… the weather turns against us…

… rain making scars
across the face of a window.

In summer the rose bay willow herb is dense. Or is it loosestrife? The former I think. Someone I knew called it railway weed, or parson’s prick because it pops up everywhere – episcopalis vulgaris erectens or some such. I wrote a story once about being asked by an elderly Japanese couple what the tall, pink weeds at the side of the track were, and how I watched them mouth each word carefully. Rose. Bay. Willow. Herb. I can’t find it now. This tall, waving plant is the hair on the back of the town’s neck. It blushes and is beautiful from a distance, ugly close-to. It sighs and bows to the train’s bow-wave. It has its own eyes and watches back, pink-lidded and dusty with sleep. Left to its own devices it would colonise no further. It seems not to need to. It seems to know the limit of its domain. No flower defines the edge more than rose bay willow herb.