The alcoholic has bad dreams, his hands shake at night
and sleep is haze and steel blue smoke,
his sleep is a train running deep into the night,
a train to Colorado, the Super Chief
on the Union Pacific, westbound and down,
all smoke and haze, a train not bound
for glory but for emptiness in the high
plains’ rattle of rail cars vibrating off cottonwood ties.
When they first laid those tracks they used the local
cottonwood, but the flesh was too soft,
and the early trains out of Omaha splintered their way
west. The alcoholic dreams in another century,
of smoke rising from the gold fields near Sacramento,
trains climbing east through Donner Pass.
Locomotive smoke blackens mountains where
generations of dead Chinese stir in the frayed blankets
they were buried in, collectively dreaming an antidote
for the white man’s manifest and terrible destiny,
a thundering dream of heavy wheels on star-gleamed rails.
Only the drunkard can find emptiness
in three thousand miles of fruited plain, purple
mountain majesties coming to an end in San Francisco
where in a few years Frost will be born to an alcoholic father
whose dreams merge with mine and every other
powerless sleeper; we, the many, who dream
of trains and centuries, of nightmare landscapes shrouded in fog.
Our manifest and collective destiny is to drink until death,
until the fog forms like smoke over the flatland cemeteries
of small Midwestern towns, where in the distance a locomotive wails
to scare the Comanche away, but dream Indians have no fear
of speeding iron, their lances pierce the monster
and the vision dissipates like smoke, the valleys glisten
with clean air. And we the many, the dreaming alcoholics,
will at last find peace in another century. Our hands will make
music in the valleys, our sleep will divest itself of trains.
Our sleep will be free of smoke, and our dreams will fill with colors:
black for the many rivers of sleep,
white for the slivers of light from long dead stars,
rose for the high Sierra dusk,
black, white, rose,
colors we will sing with pale hands,
colors we will dream in sleep:
black white rose.
Originally published by Tigertail, A South Florida Poetry Annual 2003
Jesse Millner’s poems and prose have appeared most recently in Grist and Book of Matches. His work was included in The Best American Poetry 2013 and Best Small Fictions 2020. His latest poetry book, Memory’s Blue Sedan, was released in March 2020 by Hysterical Books of Tallahassee, Florida. Jesse teaches writing courses at Florida Gulf Coast University and lives in Estero, Florida, with his dog, Lucy.