Third Annual Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge to honour my father: The Trains by Judith Wright


Geniaus has brought to my attention, the Third Annual Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge initiated by Bill West. Bill has challenged genealogists world-wide to source a poem or music which is relevant to their family’s history as follows:

1. Find a poem by a local poet, famous or obscure, from the region one of your ancestors lived in. It can be about an historical event, a legend, a person, or even about some place (like a river)or a local animal. It can even be a poem you or one of your ancestors have written! Or if you prefer, post the lyrics of a song or a link to a video of someone performing the song.

2. Post the poem or song to your blog (remembering to cite the source where you found it.)

3. Tell us how the subject of the poem or song relates to your ancestor’s home or life.

My immediate thought was how much the song Danny Boy, my father’s favourite, bridged my Scottish and Irish ancestry. But I really wanted to find something more unusual so I turned to the bookshelves and my collection of high school poetry books. I found several that tempted me and related to various aspects of family history such as Old House or Bullocky by Judith Wright or The Teams by Henry Lawson (for my Gavin ancestor who drove bullock teams). Men in Green by David Campbell has meaning for me in relation to the history of war in Papua New Guinea, where I once lived, but was too recent.  I laughed out loud once more at On the Queensland Railway Lines evoking memories of my Melvin, McSherry and Kunkel families.

Negative number: 73715 State Library of Queensland, copyright expired. Trainee soldiers at Roma Street Station Brisbane waiting to embark on a train to Caloundra Camp during World War II 1940

But then I was stopped in my tracks by Judith Wright’s poem The Trains which relates to the railway bringing guns to northern Australia during the War in the Pacific. Throughout World War II, my father was a number-taker with Queensland Railways, a protected occupation as men with railway expertise were required on the home front to ensure the efficient movement of men, armoury and supplies. My father was one of the unsung, unacknowledged men who ensured this was achieved. He worked in the goods yard at Roma Street station nearly all his life and his war service became simply part of his duties. His day-to-day responsibilities were to ensure the goods wagons were loaded in the correct order in terms of offloading and delivery and to ensure the safe distribution of freight across the wagons. With heavy armament, guns and weaponry, the importance of this is evident. All this while working long hours in a goods yard with trains all around: highly dangerous day-to-day. He also told me a few years before he died that he had supervised Italian internees loading freight at one of Brisbane’s other shunting yards during the War: the Italians liked to take the early shift, work like navvies and get the job done before the heat of the day. The reference to orchards is also, for me, a nod to his German-born great-grandfather, George Kunkel with his fruit orchards at Murphys Creek.

This poem is for my father, to recognise the service to his country that he, and no doubt his colleagues, never received.

The Trains by Judith Wright (from my Year 11 poetry book The Poet’s World published by Heinemann, 1964)

Tunnelling through the night, the trains pass

in a splendour of power, with a sound like thunder

shaking the orchards, waking

the young from a dream, scattering like glass

the old men’s sleep; laying

a black trail over the still bloom of the orchards.

The trains go north with guns.
Strange primitive piece of flesh, the heart laid quiet

hearing their cry pierce through its thin-walled cave

recalls the forgotten tiger,

and leaps awake in its old panic riot;

and how shall mind be sober,

since blood’s red thread binds us fast in history?

Tiger, you walk through all our past and future,

Troubling the children’s sleep; laying

A reeking trail across our dreams of orchards.

Racing on iron errands, the trains go by,

and over the white acres of our orchards

hurl their wild summoning cry, their animal cry…

the trains go north with guns.

6 thoughts on “Third Annual Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge to honour my father: The Trains by Judith Wright

  1. just a lovely post….thank you for sharing that particular poem of Judith Wright’s which I hadn’t heard of before….and for sharing the story of your father…I will now look at Roma Street with new eyes….

    Like

    • Thanks for your support and comment Luvviealex. One of my planned post is the something about the work of the railway employees at Roma St….nothing like it’s current incarnation. Cities are interesting aren’t they, with the layers of history, even one as young as Brisbane.

      Like

  2. This was fa fascinating post, not only because of the poem but because of the story behind it!
    Thanks for submitting it to the Challenge!
    P.S, That’s a great photo at the top of the page!

    Like

    • Thanks Bill, I enjoyed being in the challenge as it put a different spin on my approach to family history. PS the photos rotate each time the blog comes up so don’t know which one it was, but thanks!

      Like

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