the museum of americana

a literary review

Celestial Empire—Poetry by Darlene O’Dell

a poem found during the election of 2020 

In 1879, at the height of America’s Gilded Age, Charles Francis Adams, Jr.—brother to Henry Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams, great-grandson of John Adams—published his book Notes on Railroad Accidents with G.P Putnam’s Sons. In November of 2020, during an election held as national leadership failed and a pandemic spiraled out of control, I came across Adams’ book and found this poem among its pages.  

 

A railroad in quiet times 
is like a ship in steady weather 
Almost anyone can manage 
the one or sail the other 
It is the sudden stress  
which reveals the undeveloped 
strength or the hidden weakness

The disaster was due not 
to any single cause  
but to a combination of causes 
Engineers and conductors were left 
to grope their way along as best  
they could, when in doubt they were  
to stand stock still. The trains stood  
for hours in stupid obedience to a stupid rule

The accidents, invariably, belong  
to one class: insufficient control  
of those in charge over its momentum  
of such unheard rapidity. It is  
the most noticeable fact in the history  
of railroad development that controlling  
speed by no means kept pace  
with the increased rate of speed 
Each conductor or station-master 
had to look out for himself  

Writers and orators seem always  
to forget that, next to the immediate  
sufferers and their families, the unfortunate 
officials are the greatest losers 
by railroad accidents. For them, 
bread is involved

With railroads in America,  
as everywhere in life,    
passengers, men, women,  
and children are left to scramble  
across tracks as best they can,  
are expected to take care of themselves. 
The trains glide to and fro,  
coming suddenly into sight  
from beyond the bridges and  
as suddenly disappearing— 
winding swiftly in and out 
and at times four of them running  
side by side on as many tracks  
but in both directions—the whole  
making up a swiftly shifting maze  
of complex movement under the influence 
of which a head unaccustomed to the sight  
grows actually giddy 

Any person, who cares to pass 
an hour during the busy time 
of the day in front of an American 
city station, cannot but be struck  
while watching the constant movement 
with the primitive way in which 
it is being conducted, a practically  
irresistible force crashing  
through the busy hive of modern civilization 
at a wild rate of speed, going hither and thither, 
across highways and by-ways: 
Such an agency cannot be expected 
to work incessantly and yet never 
come into contact with the human frame

Those cars were the most approved  
form of American construction; 
there should have been no accident 

Ninety-nine times in a hundred 
the brake proves reliable—nine times 
in the remaining ten of the thousand, 
in which it fails, a lucky change averts  
disaster; but the thousandth time  
will assuredly come, as it did

Men of a certain type always have protested 
and will continue to protest that they have 
nothing to learn. It will not do for the American  
railroad manager to pride himself too much  
on his own greater ingenuity 

 

~~~

Darlene O’Dell is a former instructor at the College of William and Mary and Clemson University and the author of the author of The Story of the Philadelphia 11 (Seabury Books, 2014), Sites of Southern Memory (UVA Press, 2001), and I Followed Close Behind Her (Spinsters Ink, 2003). She has also written for Patheos, National Catholic Reporter, Hashtag Queer, Cobblestone, Frogpond, Under the Bashō, Wales Haiku Journal, the National Park Service, and others. She is currently a writer and workshop leader for the Family Narrative Project.