The Caveman on the Train

By John Frederick Nims 1913–1999
When first the apprizing eye and tongue that muttered
(Banished from Eden’s air? Or pride of apes?)
Sat clinking flint on flint, as they shattered
Snatched with a grin what fell in craftier shapes,
The law was move or die. Lively from tigers;
Dainty on deer. As weather called the tune.
Oxen, we learned, would bear us. So would rivers.
And that was science. On the whole a boon.

What caveman on a round rock dumped a-grunting
Rubbed at a rueful hip, brow darkening why?
Or gaped at boulders over gravel shifting
Until—a splendor of wheel-thought like sunrise!
No wonder: such example in a heaven
Revving immaculate gears, and at his feet
The planet on her axle greased and even.
Put any wheel to earth, and two wheels meet.

Athens cut ruts of marble; ivory courses
Caromed Apollo’s car of talkative gold.   
And Donne saw wagon-ways. The horsepower: horse
Over the flats of Kansas sail-cars rolled.   
First planks on querulous ground, then treads of met
Steel set edgewise, over stone for ties.   
A mountain? Sawtooth rail or crank-and-cable
Till iron took serene the incredulous rise.   

Compleat with a nifty moniker, Puffing Billy,   
Best Friend of Charleston, Wabash Cannonball,
Cycloped (horse on treadmill trudging), dapper
Black and gold of Byzantium, Sans Pareil
Flew in the face of time and testy weather,
Enemies both, the lurid brakemen know.   
(By stoves where sand is baking crisp, they gather
Trading the tall tales of high-striding snow.)   

The lone prairie, the twilight grey as steel,
The vanishing freight—oh see the lonely road
Our fathers wandered, stumbling on the wheel
—Daydreamers all, and the long row unhoed—
Sky-hankering men, their reverence still alive
Some years ago: with burning glass and sun
George Stephenson in 1825
Snatched fire for Locomotion No. 1.

Ten miles an hour, “immoderate” twelve. Today
Slow Down to Ninety, warns the black ravine.

He will go far, the caveman, this-a-way.

By grand indifference to the red and green.

John Frederick Nims, "The Caveman on the Train" from Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982).

Source: Selected Poems (The University of Chicago Press, 1982)

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Poet John Frederick Nims 1913–1999

Subjects Time & Brevity, Living, History & Politics, Social Commentaries

 John Frederick Nims

Biography

An important translator and previous editor of Poetry magazine, John Frederick Nims (1913—1999) was equally skilled as a poet. Although Nims was born in Michigan, he spent most of his life on the other side of the lake, in Chicago. Generally a classicist in technique, Nims is also well known for his witty epigrams.

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Time & Brevity, Living, History & Politics, Social Commentaries

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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