“I used to think a train whistle fathered me” is a great opening for any poem, and a perfect one for this week’s poem. For a moment, the reader thinks “a train whistle?” before the rest of the sentence unfolds and explains this seemingly surreal conception.

But, better than that initial misdirection, is how the poem’s opening deepens when we read the rest of the poem. We build a picture of a speaker who’s father died too young, and who, therefore, perhaps, had to wonder about her origin.

And by the end of the poem, that train has become much more than a train. It carries souls into and out of the world. We see how one stray story might build a worldview.

Betsy Sholl is a former Maine poet laureate and author of eight books of poems, including “Otherwise Unseeable” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014).

Twentieth Century Limited

By Betsy Sholl

I used to think a train whistle fathered me,

story my mother once told, then refused

to repeat, as if conception’s not a subject

for the conceived. It hardly had to do with me:

four A.M. milk train, my father’s wakened passion,

my mother having watched his kindness

to strangers the night before, wanting

that warmth inside her…

So, in the pre-dawn I became a passenger

riding their wail, offspring of love cries

too quickly morphed into the all aboard

carrying my father’s coffin back East,

the long sigh of my mother’s widowhood.

Even now, the late-night rumble makes me shudder

as those wheels clatter through town,

arrivals and departures riding the same track.

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc is Portland’s poet laureate. This column is produced in collaboration with the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Poem copyright © 2009 Betsy Sholl. It appeared in “Rough Cradle” (Alice James, 2009) and appears here by permission of the author.