May 30, 2024

Night Train by Gerrie Paino, train car deserted at night with stars in background

Image: “Night Train” by Gerrie Paino. “Of California, the Wild” was written by Breonne Stiglitz for Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge, April 2024, and selected as the Editor’s Choice. (PDF / JPG)

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Breonne Stiglitz

OF CALIFORNIA, THE WILD

There, on a midnight railway,
beyond the static
of the locusts,
a small, broken hum
from an old radio
blinks in and out,
in and out,
through Cuyahoga Valley
when Ohio was for lovers.
A golden sepia-toned starlet
leans on the glass
of the window
and wonders
as the steam blows
from the engine ahead.
A man in a frock coat
and a three-piece suit
tips his hat
as her wonder floats
into the aisle
where it collides
with his glistening glare.
Her rosy, peach cheeks pull
her mouth to her ears,
and she can hear
the distant voices
of California, the wild
calling her name. There,
where the cars drive
faster, the trees turn
to telephone poles,
and the lights burn
an afterimage
into the eyes of twilight—
puddles spilt
in the street, reflecting
the stoplights, the theater,
the neon signs
that curl fingers inwards
to lift skirts and seduce
prey, to convince onlookers
to buy lipstick and pearls
that bleed and coil
like snakes around the necks
of the Beautiful
and the Enlightened.
And it pulls like a venom,
pulsing,
a steam engine traveling
across the skin
of a Hollywood dream,
where it once whistled
like a biting catcall,
that now, sits amongst
the brush and thistle
to shelter the rabbits
from the foxes’ mouths,
an orchestra of crickets—
the sounds of the night
begging
the locomotive to move
again under God’s collection
of dying stars, wheels
that once turned as time does.
 

from Ekphrastic Challenge
April 2024, Editor’s Choice

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Comment from the series editor, Megan O’Reilly: “There is a dreamy, cinematic quality to this image that I felt was perfectly captured by ‘Of California, the Wild.’ I found it effortless and satisfying to imagine this ‘golden sepia-toned starlet’ looking out the train window until the natural landscape fades and ‘the trees turn / to telephone poles.’ There is magic in the way the poet contrasts the glamour and glitz of Hollywood (“the neon signs/that curl fingers inwards”) against the still-wild California land. The poem ends with a haunting reminder that the train is an agent of time–once relentless and vibrant; now frozen, just a memory.”

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