Thursday, June 7, 2012

Poetry Friday: Railroad Rhythms

Because N. loves T. S. Eliot's "Macavity the Mystery Cat" so much, I recently ordered a copy of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats so he could enjoy the whole collection.  I found this cool edition illustrated by the weirdly wonderful Edward Gorey for sale at for $1, plus $2.49 S&H. 

[I am totally addicted to AbeBooks.  Our city's public library is lame and I am constantly ordering $1 used books from Abe because they are not in the library's holdings.  This is bad public citizenship; I really need to get involved with the library.  And it's bad parenting too; my son loves the instant gratification of ordering a $1 book with one click as much as I do.  And yet, I can't quite feel terrible about buying books for less than a latte...]

The other night N. read "Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat" silently and handed it over to me: "Read this one Mom, it's really good!"

"Do you want me to read it aloud to you?"

"No, just read it to yourself.  You'll like it."

I started in silently but stopped and said, "Oh, this one has to be read aloud!  Listen:"

There's a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail's ready to depart,
Saying "Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can't start."
All the guards and all the porters and the stationmaster's daughters
They are searching high and low,
Saying "Skimble where is Skimble for unless he's very nimble
Then the Night Mail just can't go."
At 11.42 then the signal's nearly due
And the passengers are frantic to a man—
Then Skimble will appear and he'll saunter to the rear:
He's been busy in the luggage van!

He gives one flash of his glass-green eyes
And the signal goes "All Clear!"
And we're off at last for the northern part
Of the Northern Hemisphere!

You may say that by and large it is Skimble who's in charge
Of the Sleeping Car Express.
From the driver and the guards to the bagmen playing cards
He will supervise them all, more or less.
Down the corridor he paces and examines all the faces
Of the travellers in the First and the Third;
He establishes control by a regular patrol
And he'd know at once if anything occurred.
He will watch you without winking and he sees what you are thinking
And it's certain that he doesn't approve
Of hilarity and riot, so the folk are very quiet
When Skimble is about and on the move.
You can play no pranks with Skimbleshanks!
He's a Cat that cannot be ignored;
So nothing goes wrong on the Northern Mail
When Skimbleshanks is aboard.

Oh, it's very pleasant when you have found your little den
With your name written up on the door.
And the berth is very neat with a newly folded sheet
And there's not a speck of dust on the floor.
There is every sort of light-you can make it dark or bright;
There's a handle that you turn to make a breeze.
There's a funny little basin you're supposed to wash your face in
And a crank to shut the window if you sneeze.
Then the guard looks in politely and will ask you very brightly
"Do you like your morning tea weak or strong?"
But Skimble's just behind him and was ready to remind him,
For Skimble won't let anything go wrong.
And when you creep into your cosy berth
And pull up the counterpane,
You ought to reflect that it's very nice
To know that you won't be bothered by mice—
You can leave all that to the Railway Cat,
The Cat of the Railway Train!

In the watches of the night he is always fresh and bright;
Every now and then he has a cup of tea
With perhaps a drop of Scotch while he's keeping on the watch,
Only stopping here and there to catch a flea.
You were fast asleep at Crewe and so you never knew
That he was walking up and down the station;
You were sleeping all the while he was busy at Carlisle,
Where he greets the stationmaster with elation.
But you saw him at Dumfries, where he speaks to the police
If there's anything they ought to know about:
When you get to Gallowgate there you do not have to wait—
For Skimbleshanks will help you to get out!
He gives you a wave of his long brown tail
Which says: "I'll see you again!
You'll meet without fail on the Midnight Mail
The Cat of the Railway Train."

N. began to smile and bounce as he heard the opening lines develop with their rattling railroad rhythm.

"Did you know it sounded like that when you read it silently?" I asked

"No!  But Mom, there's another poem like that!"  He grabbed the Random House Book of Poetry for Children and asked me to read "Train Song" by Diane Siebert [actually a picture book, but reprinted in the Random House anthology as a poem]:

Out in back
Railroad track
Great trains
Freight trains
Talk about your late trains
The 509
Right on time
Straight through to L.A....

"I love that one too!  Isn't it cool how the rhythm of the words makes the sounds of trains on the tracks?" I asked, resisting (for now!) the English professor urge to offer a more technical explanation of how this is accomplished.

"There's a whisper down the line at 11:39/ When the night mail's ready to depart" N. recited happily.

And the next morning, "'There's a whisper down the line at 11:39.'  Mom, it keeps running through my head!" said our railfan.

[More Poetry Friday here.]


violet said...

This was so much fun. What a great poem. You are giving N. a wonderful gift of poetry appreciation!

Renee LaTulippe said...

Whoa, N. is a dream kid! I hope to follow your example with my two little guys as they get older. Fabulous!

I have that Gorey edition, too - wonderful!

jama said...

Wonderful! Hadn't heard this one in a long time. I also have the Gorey edition around here somewhere. I love the romance of trains :).

Ruth said...

What a wonderful post! It is so very fun to read poetry with my kids, too.

Mary Lee said...

Gotta love the kid who can make text sets of poetry all on his own!

Anonymous said...

Love it!! thanks for sharing. -cmr

Anonymous said...

Also, it reminds me of "The Train to Timbuktu"!