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Slow Trains Overhead: Chicago Poems and Stories

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Few people writing today could successfully combine an intimate knowledge of Chicago with a poet’s eye, and capture what it’s really like to live in this remarkable city. Embracing a striking variety of human experience—a chance encounter with a veteran on Belmont Avenue, the grimy majesty of the downtown El tracks, domestic violence in a North Side brownstone, the wide-eyed wonder of new arrivals at O’Hare, and much more—these new and selected poems and stories by Reginald Gibbons celebrate the heady mix of elation and despair that is city life. With Slow Trains Overhead, he has rendered a living portrait of Chicago as luminously detailed and powerful as those of Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg.

Gibbons takes the reader from museums and neighborhood life to tense proceedings in Juvenile Court, from comically noir-tinged scenes at a store on Clark Street to midnight immigrants at a gas station on Western Avenue, and from a child's piggybank to nature in urban spaces. For Gibbons, the city’s people, places, and historical reverberations are a compelling human array of the everyday and the extraordinary, of poverty and beauty, of the experience of being one among many. Penned by one of its most prominent writers, Slow Trains Overhead evokes and commemorates human life in a great city.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Gibbons's latest collection combines new poems and prose with selections from his previous books to create an homage to Chicago. Though he picks up where Carl Sandburg left off, both Gibbons's voice and his project are Whitmanian in scale. "From somewhere," he writes in one of the book's many odes, "a family, a village, a neighborhood, comes// The solitary singer, maybe with a guitar, who pauses with her burdens and sings, or the wayfaring man with a story that began somewhere else." Gibbons (Creatures of a Day) works best within these long, breathy lines, allowing himself to pause and wonder before resolving the thought that set him going. Unlike Whitman, Gibbons is hesitant to reach out to his subjects. At times, one wishes he would do more than pitch "his own voice... and a few coins into the cup" of the homeless he so often observes. Still, Gibbons is unafraid of asking big questions, as in the book's opening poem, in which he wonders why we "even try to list/ the kinds of places/ men and women made/ to make money." (May)
Chicago Tribune
[Gibbons] chronicles the beautiful chaos of his adopted hometown, its furious pace and its powerful history, a history tucked into the creases between the great buildings like a love note left in a school locker.

— Julia Keller

Alex Kotlowitz
“This is some of the most beautiful writing I've encountered in a long time. With Reginald Gibbons as our guide, we find ourselves in the nooks and crannies of Chicago, in garages, on street corners, in apartment buildings, and in the city’s neglected institutions like juvenile court. In this stunning collection of prose and poetry, Gibbons captures intimate and poignant stories that have as their backdrop this large, anonymous metropolis. Anyone who has an investment in the urban experience will find themselves drawn to Slow Trains Overhead.”
Rosellen Brown
“The poems and stories in Reginald Gibbons’s Slow Trains Overhead are a constantly surprising tour through the loveliness and desperation of Chicago. By their attentive listening, they pay homage to the city’s uncountable souls wherever they are to be found—on the map, on the street, at home, in the solitary mind’s eye. This is a necessary, enlivening book by a keen observer with an open spirit who makes impassioned music out of the most ordinary encounters, without cynicism or sentimentality.”
Robert Polito
Slow Trains Overhead is a book of incessant crossings and intersections. Reginald Gibbons’s formidable trains resist expedient arrivals as much as they insist on fresh departures—from the present into ‘history,’ our everyday into ‘a different life,’ the elevated tracks and blind alleys of Chicago into the world. These are poems—and prose—that I’m convinced Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell would have loved—and James Joyce, Baudelaire, and Chekhov, too.”
Chicago Tribune - Julia Keller
"[Gibbons] chronicles the beautiful chaos of his adopted hometown, its furious pace and its powerful history, a history tucked into the creases between the great buildings like a love note left in a school locker."
Chicago Tribune

"[Gibbons] chronicles the beautiful chaos of his adopted hometown, its furious pace and its powerful history, a history tucked into the creases between the great buildings like a love note left in a school locker."—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune

— Julia Keller

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226290584
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/15/2010
  • Pages: 120
  • Sales rank: 1,454,837
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Reginald Gibbons is a poet, fiction writer, translator, and essayist. At Northwestern University, he is professor of English and classics, director of the Center for the Writing Arts, and codirector of the MA/MFA Program in Creative Writing. His most recent poetry collection, Creatures of a Day, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.

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Table of Contents


Adams & Wabash

A Meeting

Five Pears or Peaches

Ode: Citizens

Avian Time

Elsewhere Children

A Car

Milwaukee & Division

Small Business

Forsaken in the City

A Large Heavy-Faced Woman, Pocked, Unkempt, in a Loose Dress


A Leap

Mekong Restaurant



Ode: At a Twenty-Four-Hour Gas Station


The Vanishing Point

Just Imagine

On Sad Suburban Afternoons of Autumn

Broadway & Argyle

Slow Motion


An Aching Young Man


Boy on a Busy Corner

A Man in a Suit

Hungry Man Raids Supermarket

The Blue Dress

The Affect of Elms

Red Line Howard / 95th


Rich Pale Pink

Friday Snow


State & Wacker

On Belmont



No Matter What Has Happened This May

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