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Poem of the week: Night Subway by Katha Pollitt


This likable poet takes imaginative leaps in time, from a common subway scene to the Persian king Xerxes surveying his army

Likability in a poet's work is a quality distinct from talent or craft. The judgment is subjective, of course, but there are certainly poets around whose popularity is generated not simply by public appearance, but by the words on the page. Equally, there are others whose poems may be brilliant yet seem to bristle unwelcomingly at a first reading, while a few, possibly, try too hard at being Mr or Ms Accessible. Katha Pollitt, the Brooklyn-born writer, is an acclaimed journalist as well as poet. When I first encountered her verse, I didn't know this, or anything else about her, but it was like meeting a friend. Pollitt's poems sometimes take us on difficult journeys. They're often emotionally stirring. But the tone – and I suppose this is the key to likability – is modest, comedy-conscious, and generous towards individuals and the human condition in general. This week's poem, Night Subway, is an example of her more serious mode.

Night Subway begins as observant, sensitive reportage. It fills us in on some of the backstory: the nurse works in a psychiatric hospital, the teenagers have been out on "heavy dates in Times Square". And it picks out the salient details, as a novelist might (the novelist Pollitt brings to mind the wonderful Anne Tyler). The nurse is a woman of colour: the speaker notices her legs "shining darkly through the white hospital stockings". Nurses in stories usually have sturdy legs: this one defies the stereotype. The "Hasid from the camera store" is subjected to some not unsympathetic humour, as, performing the impossible, he "mumbles … the nameless name of god". He flinches from female contact – in a poem which tells us not to flinch from humanity. His God-fearing misogyny is comic but also terrible.

The little boy imagines dragons in the signal-lights as they "wink and flash", while his mother, smoking angrily as if to deaden the emotional response so alive in the boy, mirrors the Hasid, perhaps, as she silently castigates the male of the species. Dialect here gives her words a hard eloquence. It heightens our sense that her complaint arises from some real, still-smarting betrayal.

The whole scene is convincingly ordinary – dated by the smoking reference, of course – but otherwise inhabited by characters who are completely recognisable. They are individuals who represent some of the ethnic diversity of the big city, and the separateness of the lives it tenuously, randomly, brings together.

Those 13 lines of preamble are not as self-contained as they appear. They conclude in a dash, and so urge us on to the next, much shorter segment. Characteristic of Pollitt's narrative-style is this shift from the local detail to the historical wide angle. "How not think of Xerxes" is a sensitive way of introducing the image through a rhetorical question which brings the reader, who might never have thought of Xerxes, into the fabric of the poem's feelings. The image of the Persian king surveying his shining army, and his tears at the brevity of life (described by Herodotus in the Histories) has the effect of stilling the poem, and holding those figures in the train similarly suspended. The rich significance of their ordinariness is simultaneously registered and erased, as we look back at the passengers, and then into the future where they no longer exist. It's important to remember that soldiers of many different nationalities served in Xerxes's army: Phoenicians, Jews, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians.

The poem could possibly have ended here. But there's a third dimension. The final invocation reminds me of the Chinese poets alluded to in other poems by Pollitt, such as the quotation in A Walk: "Oh, full moon that shone on our scholarly wine-parties,/ do you see us now, scattered on distant shores?"

Yet the last two lines of Night Subway are a lot less melancholy. This little envoi includes images arranged vertically as well as horizontally. The river, of course, moves in a linear manner, like the train, and the clouds move similarly across the moon. Time hasn't stopped, as it seemed to stop in the previous segment. But, in the notion of the river "rejoicing in the moon", the moment of precious vitality has been restored. The poem might be read as a modern "carpe diem". This time, it's the night which holds the fleeting treasures of life.

Night Subway is from The Mind-Body Problem, which is Pollitt's first British-published collection, and warmly to be welcomed. You can read more of her work here, or, better still, check out the entire collection. I've chosen a poem that reveals Pollitt's human warmth and her ability to take imaginative, connective leaps in time. For all the likability of her work, I've found many poems which caused the hairs on the back of my neck to tingle, and this is one of them.

Night Subway

The nurse coming off her shift at the psychiatric ward
nodding over the Post, her surprisingly delicate legs
shining darkly through the white hospital stockings,
and the Puerto Rican teens, nuzzling, excited
after heavy dates in Times Square, the girl with green hair,
the Hasid from the camera store, who mumbles
over his prayerbook the nameless name of God,
sitting separate, careful no woman should touch him,
even her coat, even by accident,
the boy who squirms on his seat to look out the window
where signal lights wink and flash like the eyes of dragons
while his mother smokes, each short, furious drag
meaning Mens no good they tell you anything –

How not think of Xerxes, how he reviewed his troops
and wept to think that of all those thousands of men
in their brilliant armour, their spearpoints bright in the sun,
not one would be alive in a hundred years?

O sleepers above us, river
rejoicing in the moon, and the clouds passing over the moon.

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