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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