Subway (and other mass transit) poems

Metro Center

He always knew
his enemies
would not be able
to destroy him –

nor would
violence or disease
conspire to
take him out –

nor would he be
behind the wheel
when he crossed
the River Jordan –

one night he would
fall asleep, as usual,
and wake up
in Beulahland.

a luta continua…


Final day in Lisbon (September 5th)

Early bus ride to Marfa
self-guided tour through the Palace
lunch – frango no forno
librarian walk through the library
chat with the single restoration contractor
bus ride back to Lisbon

subway to Rossio
½ kilo Cape Verdean coffee
½ kilo Angolan coffee
tea from the Azores
postcards for next year’s poetryfest
rendez-vous at Martinho de Arcada

coffee and pastries with old friends
photo at Pessoa’s table
too tall Super Bok

the pen ran out of ink
about the same time that
the page ran out of space
on which to write
I wrote on the back
of a boarding pass

Haiku from Lisbon – September 5, 2014

things still remain –
wrapped up –
that want to be unwound –

words unexpressed,
thoughts never quite
exchanged –

and worlds unformed.

Poetry me
Poem me
Romance me

build me a poem
make poetry for me
make me your poem
Let me be the poem

let poetry be me
romance me

April 5, 2016

I am black and semi-retired. Though a country boy,
I live in a city that is not my home or hometown.
I hate its noises and the smell of machinery
on subway platforms that live deep in the bowels
of the underground. So I ride the bus. Because I found
my voice years ago I am not invisible, notwithstanding
my own delusions of invisibility. In a divisive political year
I vote both ways (maybe three ways, maybe four)
and dare anybody to tell me I am wrong. I took a long
walk today, south to Georgetown and west to Dupont
Circle and there is plenty of ink left in my fountain pen.
This might be stream of consciousness, and if I don’t
run out of gas, it might make it to a 14-line poem,
or it might shape shift itself into a short story.

August 7, 2017 #23

I take the long route home
at end of the day – more time
for reading on the subway

And I don’t rush for departing
trains – the next one is coming
and will be less crowded

August 11, 2017 #25

I am seeing objects
in rapid random motion
on my mind’s periphery

Items I never knew
existed, never even
gave a reality to

before they appeared.
the items must think I’m
ready to see them

August 11, 2017 #26

Rushing home today
and hoping someone
has uploaded today’s
episode of Eastenders
on youtube so we can
watch it and chat over dinner

July 25, 2017 ##24

People-watching on the Morning Commute

Just something in passing –
thinking about the poets among us.
Why do we record the daily events of our lives?

Are you back from your journey
to the Big Apple? I was the only
person on the subway this morning
without an umbrella. Am I in trouble?

There was a lady on the Orange Line,
sitting, sipping on a coffee drink
in one of those tall, clear, mobile bottles.
We rode together for three stops.
Low cut L.L. Bean rain shoes on her feet.

She touched her lips after a sip,
perhaps remembering a distant kiss.
An observation, not a judgment –
It’s something I have done before.
Because she also had a distant stare.


Last Friday of the Summer Sonnet

It’s Friday. The bean pie man hawks
his wares at Foggy Bottom after work.
We swap old wives’ tales about pie-making
as I pick up the coming week’s supply.

I forgot to charge my phone last night
Guess I’ll be untraceable on the grid
Until I log in to the matrix at work.

It’s Friday. At noon I hear the prayer call
from 4th Street, Bissau, Cairo, Baghdad,
Damascus. Quadraphonic stereo pronouncement
from places where I have lived and loved.

I know this commute by heart – can do it
in my sleep – a circumambulation
at an invisible, mythic black stone.

subway poem #1

all the commuters stare at their devices,
some have white wires falling from their ears –
playing games, shopping, sending texts,
reading e-mails, getting their instructions,
directions from the great almight-Tee –

for me it’s an easy commute from the Bottom –
four stops to Metro Center, one stop
to Chinatown – but still, I pull out a book
to read to pass the time – my god is older
and less compatible with the new technologies –

it’s a short breezy walk from Chinatown
to the alley where I work – I could take
the green line for one stop, or catch a bus
down 7th St., but what purpose would that serve?

subway poem #2

I took the bus home. It was cold & dark
(thank you, DST) & raining & the bus
approached the stop as I was headed
to the Green Line station. The driver
politely stopped in front of me.

Had planned to attend a colloquium
in Brookland. But the rain helped to change
my mind. Plus, Filomena told me she had
a pot of homemade chicken soup simmering
on the stove, calling my name.

A different group of commuters rides
the bus – older, less aggressive, less
noisy and there is no riding down deep
subterranean holes on metallic escalators

that hurt you when you slip and fall.
Not to mention all those acrid smells
from screeching brakes & grinding gears.

The bus only went as far as Farragut West.
Amazing, that guy. The first admiral.
“Damn the Torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
Two subway stations named in his memory.
His statue stands tall in the square.

subway poem #3

Caught the Red line at NoMA after work –
sometimes on Wednesdays or Thursdays
I work with special collections at DCPL,
that’s DC Public Library for short,
temporarily housed at Penn Center in NoMA
(that’s North of Massachusetts Ave for short).

I read some Walt Whitman on the train
that puts me in a pleasant state of mind –
hypnotic, and I almost miss my stop
at the transfer point to the Blue, Orange
& Silver Line.

There could be worst things than the hustle
and bustle of commuting. Like these minstrel
shows – performing, dancing on the train platform –
dancing to the music. People are watching,
turning their heads to see as they walk by.
But why bother? It’s the same old minstrel
show. Why bend your neck to look? The dance
steps haven’t changed in 100, 200 years.

Not meaning to sound philosophic, but I worry
about my people, caught up in the same tricks
generation after generation, and doing the same
minstrel dance for white folks who are too
eager to be hypnotized. Oh well. The Orange line
train approaches, and I have more Leaves of Grass
to read before we reach the Bottom.

subway poem #4

It’s the Green line that goes east to Anacostia.
All the eastbound trains, though, pass through
L’Enfant Plaza, every line except the Red.
Anacostia is my spiritual home, you know,
both my endowment and my inheritance.

The bridge that crosses the Anacostia River
has always been a gate for me, an arch
straddling two dimensions, space and time,
a transition and a transformation affording access
to new hopes, new loves, and new opportunities.
East is the new frontier. Go East, young man!

The Orange line to New Carrollton was packed
this morning. I felt like a canned sardine.
But a large crowd got off at Farragut West –
must be lots of jobs and offices there.

It’s good to know. Sometime stanzas spill out
in strange order. We have to re-arrange
our rambling thoughts, take stock, get back on track.

subway poem #5

Fourteen lines is an approximation –
fewer lines, or more, may be sufficient.
But line length must be paid attention to.

It’s Veterans Day. I’m doing laundry
and checking what folks are talking about
on Facebook and Twitter – news of the day.

And the news is not good: a coup attempt
is underway in the home of the brave –
we’ve seen the play before but no one owns

the script. I’ll be riding no trains to work
for the rest of the weekend. My office
is closed and a couplet is all that’s left.

It took me all these years to figure out
I might be the spook who sat by the door.

subway poem #6

I learned to recite “In Flanders Fields”
from my dad, word for word and line for line
until I got it right. He’d recite his favorite
poems whenever he was self-medicated.

Pop saw action in Italy, the so-called
“Good War,” the integrated Army Air Corp,
its own small miracle for the time.
And so I’ll dedicate this subway poem
to his memory, keep the faith unbroken,
and let him sleep in peace.

Years later, before my own enlistment,
I came across Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,”
and it shattered all my youthful illusions
about the glories of war. Later still,
I found James Shirley’s “Dirge,”
said to be Robert Frost’s favorite poem.
Owen must have read it as well, I’m sure.

This poem is about poems and father memories –
no subway trains run through it – and service
and sacrifice that sometimes goes unpaid.

Subway poem #7

There are no spirits lurking in the aisles
and corners. Just cartons of documents,
details of lives. Whether well-lived or ill,
these papers tell the story – marriage, birth,
land acquired, taxes. Death. It’s all there.
No need for the rattling sound of zombies –
ghosts of events yet to come – in graveyards.

Might this be the judgement we fear? The words
and deeds, archived records we leave behind
won’t deliver souls to any heaven –
or hell. It’s just a mirage, this image
of hereafter we’ve been trained to accept
as truth, the certain object of our faith:
dried, folded, faded, in a dusty box.

subway poem #8

I want to tell y’all about this amazing poem
I stumbled upon. I can’t stop reading it,
can’t stop listening to it being read
by its creator on the Poetry Foundation website.
It has quite addicted me to its charms.
It’s titled: “Prologue – And Then She Owns You.”

What’s it about? It’s about New Orleans,
and the thought of the Katrina disaster
runs all through it, though the poem never
mentions the the storm, or the flood,
or all the death and destruction that resulted.
In fact, I’d pretty much call it – a love poem.

Maybe because I’ve been there –
two or three times, back in the ‘80s.
Maybe that’s why it appeals to me.
And yes, I know it’s whacked to write a poem
about another poem, but this thing
really has me dizzy in its appreciation.

I’m gonna make it a subway poem,
even though I don’t think New Orleans
has a subway connecting its parishes
by tunnels underground. But it’s ok.
Just read it. You will see.

subway poem #9

Reading an obit hyperlinked to a blog
hyperlinked to love poems, one might assume
death were itself conclusive. It is said
Poseidon, the protector of seafarers, is
more powerful a god than the Roman Neptune,
since Greece is surrounded by the sea.

A friend asked if connections between people
had their antecedents out in space, as stardust,
or beneath us, at the bottom of the sea.
All I know is I’d rather be a mariner
than an astronaut. A shipmate told me
there are more airplanes at the bottom
of the ocean than submarines in the sky.

In part, perhaps, because I am an older guy,
I wonder why people seem so obsessed
with a poet’s sexual proclivities, as if
that’s something somehow fixed, predestined.

My favorite poets are so because of what
and how they write, not with whom or how
they spend their private moments. Poetic
sentiment is universal, ubiquitous, maybe
even transformational, if you listen.

It didn’t take me long to figure out
I might not be able to coast by on
my good looks alone. The escalator
froze tonight at Capitol South. Not cool.
Next time I’ll take the steps.

subway poem #10

My train entered McPherson Square station
meeting another train headed to Virginia.
On the other side, I saw the face of a former lover,
looking down at her phone, or maybe a book.
She looks older, but so do I. Twenty-three years.
We had some good times, incredible sex,
endless arguments. And she would drink scotch
and smoke menthol cigarettes late into the night,
and I tried to do both, but self-destruction
wasn’t in my nature. She left and I let her go,
and breaking up was hard, uncertain, chilling
to know what I’d never experience again in quite
the same way, with the same passionate intent.
Two trains passed, pausing at an interim station.


A bit of December chill hurts my knees.
Up and down too many ladders on ships
and submarines when I was young.
Now I pay the price. My Greek Muse
is tapping me on the shoulder, “Write,
write something, damn it!” And I am
heating up yesterday’s Chinese leftovers
and sipping this morning’s coffee for lunch
while the ink dries.


The Golden Krust Man

The Golden Krust man died.
We weren’t friends except

In that dream world –
Where odd things flow together
In a swirl. I was once a baker –
If you overmix the dough
It comes out tough, not crisp like crust.

Today I take the Red Line
To NoMa, then walk the bicycle trail
To the temporary DCPL,
For my practicum arranging
The papers of the Association
Of Liberated Librarians.

subway poem #11

It was a cold morning in the Bottom.
Reading “Trading Twelves” on the Orange Line
I missed my Red Line stop, so I continued
riding (and reading) to the Yellow Line
crossing at L’Enfant Plaza. Already late
for work anyway, I made a detour
and grabbed a hot breakfast to go at Saints’
Paradise Cafe. Picked up The Hill paper
for an update on Tuesday’s #SOTU speech
because it went on forever and I had
my bedtime to keep. Turns out the Negro Caucus
was grumpy all night, sad-faced and wearing
the kente of their African ancestry
around their necks to make a statement.

14 lines

Let’s memorialize this in verse before
truth decays, before it dies a slow death
in its own vomit and built-in obsolescence –

I told them years ago their intel was garbage,
and I stopped consuming it, and I stand
by that. They should have listened.

They have been eating recycled garbage
from the trough for so long now, stewed,
deep-fried, boiled, lightly sauteed, al dente,
and their only language is “oink, oink.”

The Memo is released and the Dow is falling.
I thank the Gods for Fridays and Duke Ellington
Money Jungle (full album on YouTube).
“We have Art in order not to die of the Truth.”


Each universe with which we interact
demands of us a level of respect
and complicity, yes, complicity,
while we wonder if we are hypocrites,
or merely disbelievers. As if it
even matters. And what doesn’t kill us
endows us, becomes our strength and power,
our shelter in a storm. The paths we trod
we tread, the record of our deeds becomes
our judgment day, our immortality.
Be patient with me – I’m not finished yet.
Pay no attention to my southern charm,
that folksiness you underestimate
is just a steady cadence for my march.