Steamer Trunk

by John Atkinson

The shine from the dinted corners
of solid brass is dulled by time spent tied 
to the roof of unending trains.
Stained by sweating serving men
who grip, heave, and rope
the trunk to parch on the trail
of the never-setting colonial sun. 
Three masted steam ships toss
and roll the adventurer’s posh cabins
as stay-behinds wave rose-scented
handkerchiefs on the home quays of the Empire.
Packed with skinny fascinators, satin white gloves,
lace edged shirts, linen-green place mats, and ladies
delicate pastels. Bits treasured at home, imagined
essential, in a future settler life of never-ending fun,
tradition free moments, and adventure-full days. 

Desperate rooting for stout shoes over-tumbles
trunk contents into broken hearts. Spirits sink lower as 
the rawness of colonial life demand non-existent 
loose linen, tough leggings, and wide bonnets. 
Their burning skin fights the sun, spiders, and fiery bugs,
As stiff upper lips joust with sky-high sun and unyielding ground.
Three months of horizon-squinting for relief or a newsy letter,
while snowy Christmas lines melt in the shimmering air. 
Their taste buds swill unknown plants and gums and 
minutes and seconds snake to a stop as every time piece 
fails to tick or tock. The days and months drag 
as the smell of turning native gnaws. Bullock-drawn
dray and wagon muscle the trunk along, bringing Big-Ben 
sync to outback time. Kneeling around the treasure 
in supplication and hope, they clunk open 
the battered, brass-latch-lock-bound envoy of hope.
They fan inhale the mother country 
into down-under rerouted afferent paths. 
Mugs, Scrabble, and a musket state the occupiers.

It reposes now, hinge-bound, by the 
memory foam mattress in the guest bedroom
of a ‘des-res’ villa by the sea. Hourly paid
immigrant staff buff and shine its brass
from time to time. Leggy spiders tickle
its dents and scars as they scamper,
seeking sustenance and quiet, hidden corners. 
Inside, a green alpaca throw, and red tartan blanket
hold forgotten toys and outgrown 
Halloween costumes in their warming folds.

Note: The poem is in three parts and was written following a visit to Australia where my host had a book of letters from early settlers back to their family in England. This recorded the difficulties and joys of moving from England of Churches and green countryside to the wild untamed outback of Aboriginals and convicts. The image of the steamer trunk in that journey inspired this poem. I stand in awe of those earlier settlers. As an Irishman I find that the days of Empire leave me with mixed emotions—which is a good place to learn about life and resilience.

John Atkinson is a nomadic project manager. His writing tries to capture the sound and images of people as they live their lives. He has been fortunate to have been published in several literary magazines (Quibble, The Wingless Dreamer, The Bohemian, The Scaldy detail, Revival, Boyne Berries). Wexford Arts center also chose his ten-minute play, On the way to Fethard-on-Sea for their One Voice Festival 2023. John hails from Wexford and is the father of three adult children.