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Poetry: Empire of Earth

Poetry: Empire of Earth

Walter Donway

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March 28, 2011

Editor’s Note: Among the virtues we promote at The New Individualist are the courage, independence, integrity, and vision of creative producers in all walks of life—including those largely unheralded heroes of the business world.

Few moments in history embodied the sheer romance of entrepreneurship better than the latter half of the nineteenth century, when productive giants walked the earth, leaving in their footsteps the mines, mills, factories, and railroads whose enduring legacy is the unprecedented bounty that Americans enjoy today.

Walter Donway has penned an elegant and evocative tribute in verse to men like James J. Hill and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built America’s great railroads. His poem renders tangible the virtues, values, and indomitable spirit that move all creators—and the great obstacles that they must face and surmount on their pathways to achievement.

I know that you will find it as inspiring as did I.   —RJB

I drop this sweet thick soil, but it clings
In creases of my hand, upraised against
The glaring, shoreless seas of prairie grass,
Where two bright blades of steel thrust to the west.

A half a continent—a decade, too—
Will take you back to where the cities end,
And I began. It’s where the wagon trains
Are white threads tugged off the urban skein
And woven westward by an unseen hand.
Where horse and mule and man took up their loads
For the lurching first steps west, I stood
And saw two lines converging at the sky—
A royal highway of geometry
On which the many thousands gathered there
Might cross desert, plain, and mountain range
As easily as Chinese emperors rode!

Two years I scouted, then rode off the plains
To take my dream to money men of myth
Within the hushed cathedrals of Chicago's
Mighty banks. I felt their frowning study,
Their glances at my beard, and clothes, and hands.
I might have been some missionary priest,
All scarred and bronzed by years in jungle climes,
Returned to witness he done God's work.
Bishops in silken robes, amidst the gold,
The incense, and the priceless tapestries,
But half attended with arch, incurious smiles.
I wove in words and spelled upon the air
What I myself had seen: the prairie loam
Erupting crops of spring and winter wheat;
The timber stands streaming like nomad nations
From the western mountain face to Puget Sound.
And then: Pacific passage!
 
The bankers stared
And sighed and shrugged—patiently instructed me
That empty land unfolds a thousand miles
Where town and farm and mine are all unknown.
They deigned to teach me what my eyes had seen,
Describing places I myself had trod,
With snowshoes skimming seas of drifting white
In mountain passes that the old wolf shuns.

Go east, they said, go east, and try your line
Up marble steps that rise at easy grade
To halls of Congress, where one may win
Dominions vaster than the tsars could covet.
No need, they said, to speak of trains and freight,
For there you may hold forth to bankers
Beholden to no savers, risking gold
They did not earn and do not reckon dear.
Such men could wave their pens and make it pay
To push my tracks across the barren plains,
Through notches cut like letters on the sky,
And down to forests distant as the moon.

But I would have no part of it, no halls
Where rail is laid on paper, and the land
Is staked on tablecloths, and each day dawns
Upon more worthless shares, more bonds, more loans.
I do not lay my steel on ground the gift
Of public men who at a stroke dispose
A million acres they have never seen.
The day that men who live upon this land
Decline my clasp to seal my right to pass
That day forever will be end-of-steel.

So I rode west and never east again.
I pressed my track into the yielding earth,
Beneath the weight of trains of immigrants,
Until new towns rose up on either side.
And harder then I pressed as trains rolled west.
I did not rush unfurling measured miles
To harvest crops of subsidies and grants.
The bankers in Chicago murmured: “Folly.”
But now I had my advocates in tolling bells
That rang the passing trains from church to church.

Three nights ago, I tarried in a town
New-built beside the track, like hundreds more,
Each with its grip upon this line of steel
Like climbers on a parlous mountain side.
Here were a dozen earthen prairie homes,
A trading shack still open to the air,
A blacksmith at his bench beneath the sky:
All plans, and talk, and work, and boasts, and hopes.
That night we feasted, danced, and drank the hale
Of the tiny town. And the eyes of girls
And the grins of lads are ever the same
Where the work is hard and the hope is high.
And suddenly voices and friendly hands
Were pushing me into the firelight, with cheers
And claps as though this were some jubilee.
I turned and saw those faces framed in light
As from a vision shimmering on air
Above the dark prairie. For they beheld
A dream as bright as rose for me one day.
No words escaped the fist that held my heart.

At dawn, the engine's steady, patient gasps
Raised swirling skirts of cloud about its knees;
The whistle loosed its iron moan to hills
That rolled it round the wakening plains.
And every man, and woman, some with babes,
Looked up to where I stood, and at their backs
The rising sun swept to the unknown West.

Tonight, we make our camp at end-of-steel
Where high plains surge against the mountains
And break, retreat; but we push on at dawn.
On every trail are straining mules and men:
Surveyors first, on trail I broke and blazed
Long since; and then cutters, blasters, bedders,
All squalling Irish, Dutch, and Chinaman;
Then engineers and masons brace the cuts
And trim the gorges with majestic trestles.

By some good grace it is not ours to see
The full price that is set upon our dreams.
A thousand miles behind Red River bridge,
Was where a stranger rashly saw this day.
A stranger, yes, for what of his is mine?
I have a hand half stubs of fingers,
A face the hue of cedar turned to weather,
A beard as bleached as chalk-white trailside bones.
Out of my little shard of looking glass
Stare blue eyes as stormed as mountain winter.
The doctors say that only dead men know
Such wounds as scar my chest. And memory
Tells tales to awe that stranger who was me:
How we would madly throw down tools and grasp
For guns when Indian war cries slit the air.

I mean to have my way in this fair land:
Traveling to the ocean shore on trains
That roar like Odin through the forest pines;
Dispatching swaying boxcars full of wheat
To hungry millions for their daily bread;
Piling high the sawmills’ planks of lumber
On flatcars bound for harbors, and Cathay;
And raising factories for the handiwork
Unguessed that is the genius of free men.

These visions crowd like friends about the fires
I keep in lonely camps too cold for sleep.
But I pretend no easy prophecy.
We live in sky, but walk upon the land;
And I will spike my dreams into the Earth.
                                             
© 2006 by Walter Donway