Poet, railroad historian, administrator – Tony Reevy lives in many worlds
“I write some poems about nature, but I’m not principally a nature poet,” Reevy said. “If I did specialize in nature poetry, it would connect better to what I do in my day job, but that’s not where my muse is. Specific topics, like fracking, are really hard to do in a poem and make it interesting.”
But sometimes the muse does lead the poet in an unexpected direction. Recently, the death of his young niece from cancer stirred a childhood memory of playing in Virginia’s James River, where the toxic insecticide kepone was dumped in the 1960s and 1970s and fishing was banned for 13 years.
The result was “Kepone Days,” an “environmental poem that’s brand new that I’m very proud of,” he said. “I meant that poem to be about a theme that we think a lot about at work – environmental policy.”
Reevy’s most recent poetry book, “Passage,” though, isn’t about the environment. It focuses on immigrants and their treatment in this country, a timely topic that’s also personal. His paternal grandfather, of Hungarian ethnicity, emigrated here from Hungary (now Slovakia) then returned to his native country briefly after World War I. That’s where Reevy’s father was born. His grandfather brought the family back to America in 1923, just before passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, which limited the number of immigrants from Eastern Europe and excluded Asians altogether. Reevy’s father didn’t become a naturalized citizen until after returning from military service in World War II.
We’d throw down our bikes –
just graduated from banana
seats to ten-speeds – at the end
of the development’s road.
A broad flood-plain bank,
littered with Hurricane Agnes’
leavings, was our front porch
to the James.
Jordan’s Point, the looming
bridge towers, just upstream.
Then, farther west, Hopewell
and its fuming factories.
While we splashed, played – weekends
mostly – men labored in the old
filling station, which Allied Chemical
said it didn’t own. And the plume spread
downstream towards us. Each Monday,
we’d go back to junior high together,
wearing our Converses,
if the river water soaking them
But “Passage” isn’t the only book Reevy published this year. “The Railroad Photography of Jack Delano,” a nonfiction photo book, was released in late November.
“I have two books out this year, which makes me tired just to think about,” Reevy said.
Reevy, it turns out, is also a knowledgeable railroad historian and author of “Ghost Train!” 90 ghost stories associated with American railroads, and “O. Winston Link: Life Along the Line,” a collection of photos by world-famous photographer O. Winston Link of the Norfolk and Western, the last major steam railroad in America, as it converted to diesel power.
“I had always been interested in trains,” he said, which was one of the reasons he was selected to narrate “Life Along the Line” after a friend turned down the project and suggested Reevy to the publisher.
The 230-page coffee table book, filled with 180 photographs, was a hit with railroad buffs. After it was published in 2012, Reevy did interviews with the Washington Post and the Atlantic magazine. The Lens blog of the New York Times featured the book.
Reevy, whose poetry had appeared exclusively in chapbooks (four) until then, is convinced that the success of this nonfiction book led to the publication of his first poetry book, “Old North” in 2013. Not even his nomination for a prestigious Pushcart Prize for a poem, “First Week in Troy – 1972,” in his very first chapbook had done that.
The success of “Life Along the Line,” also led to his current book, the railroad book that was his idea.
“I was already thinking about Jack Delano and already had the photos for a book selected before ‘Life Along the Line,’” he said. Delano, it turned out, had emigrated to America from Ukraine in 1923, the same year Reevy’s father arrived. Delano went on to become a Depression-era photographer for the Farm Security Administration, later the Office of War Information, along with such well-known photographers as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks.
“I expect to see the stock of his creative work rising over the years, especially his portraiture of Americans in hard times transcending their problems,” Reevy said of Delano. The photo collection includes Delano’s photographs of railroad operations and workers taken in and around Chicago in the winter of 1942-43 and during a cross-country journey on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
Reevy plans to continue on this double writing track – poetry and nonfiction – but is also devoted to his full-time administrative job at the Institute for the Environment. He does his writing almost exclusively on Saturdays in the Durham home he shares with his wife, Caroline Weaver, registrar in the School of Education, and children Lindley and Ian.
His next nonfiction project is a book on Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, a writer and photographer couple known for their interest in railroads, as well as Beebe’s role in New York’s Prohibition-era “cafe society.” The men owned two private railcars and produced about 20 books on railroad history.
Reevy has two poetry projects in the works as well. One is a series of poems about New Mexico, an expansion of his chapbook “In Mountain Lion Country,” which he’s calling “Socorro,” the town he lived in from age 7 to 12.
The other poetry book is a sequence built around “Kepone Days,” exploring the relationship between the environment and health. “It’s a theme I feel strongly about,” he said.