Posted by: Peadar Ban | November 27, 2010

The Train In The Sky: Joe Duncan’s War

This is something I wrote a few years ago about a fellow I knew, a sweet little guy who grew up in hell.


The Interborough Rapid Transit runs
Over Broadway from the Harlem River
To Van Cortlandt Park some several miles,
Shadows underneath curb to curb, steel pillars
Holding up the railroad right of way.
I saw Joe Duncan one morning
Weaving on his feet unsteadily
Right down the middle of the street
Beneath the elevated rails
Drunk as a senator, day breaking
Over the blocks of pre-war walkups
Where we all lived together more or less.

The war was almost over.
The rain of trains continued.

My brother was the story-teller
In our walks to school, the tale different
Each morning and afternoon in those days
Of innocence, Polio, Stalin and our teachers.
Joe Duncan, a year and some my senior,
Walked on one side, (I was on the other)
Begging a tale from the early dreamer
To cover the nightmares left at home.
Untellable. He couldn’t speak or run.

The war was going on.
The trains a distant sound.

Walking home brought more stories
Until Joe left us at the corner
To go up the hill to wait
For his father and his daily beating.
Unless, of course, his mother
Had become the target of the day’s
Outrage and Joe, and all who cared
To listen still, followed the train of tears
From cries through screams to whimpers
And blank silence in the dark apartment.

War was being waged.
The trains arrived on schedule.

In the morning and the evening rush trains
Came and left every thirty-five seconds
Roaring in with the power of a punch and
Screaming steel grinding steel to stop.
They left with a moan of inertia overcome
The station waiting for the next punch.
In thirty-five seconds ten or twelve
Blows can be landed with effect
On the bodies of your wife or son
Especially if you tell them not to run.

War never stops while
Waiting for the next train.

Joe stopped going home. It wasn’t there!
He found home and mother
In a bottle or a can, and found
His father, too, whom he could kill
Over and over every day.
I never saw a more determined drunk.
He used his weapon effectively
Against his enemy, never wavering
Or falling back from unremitting
Attack. What matter the lives lost?
Total war never counts the cost.

Ammunition in bottle and can
The supply trains ran.

How big can a liver get before
It explodes, how long does a heart
Take to disintegrate? It took
Joe Duncan more than twelve years
Finally to kill everything he hated.
Then he marched in triumph
North through the ruins beneath
The railroad track to the park
Roaring drunken victory against misery
There he fell with last year’s leaves, dog offal
And dried newspaper headlines
At the entrance to the IRT station.

The war was over,
Joe on the train home.



  1. Gotta say I really like this piece, the moderism just really flows through-out it entirely. And the way you’re able to tell a story so clearly with such rythmn is outstanding.


  2. Thank you, B.K. Brown. I do not know what modernism is, but I do appreciate your comment. Every word of what I wrote is the truth.


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