After all the harangues, the children hawking baubles, the young men with hard-luck stories and health dramas, it is a relief when the poets come down the aisle of the Buenos Aires subway trains. They are soft-spoken if they even speak at all. They are well but simply dressed. Perhaps they wear their hair tied back. They peddle little pamphlets of their own creation.
Yesterday, a poet boarded the evening subway train I was riding. He distributed his poems without a word, not forcing them on anyone, just standing before each of us, querying us with his doe-like eyes and offering his little pamphlet. Something in his gaze made me think he was a bit simple. I dug into my pocket and found only a large bill but he, being a poet, didn’t have any change at all. We looked at each other stymied. Like two animals at the ends of their tethers, we couldn’t get any closer. I wouldn’t have his poems to read while he wouldn’t have the writer’s pleasure of gaining a new reader. The situation was frustrating: I thought him a bit daff for peddling something and not having a speck of change; he probably thought the same of me for not having a smaller bill.
But a woman in her forties in a worn cotton dress did have exact change to buy his pamphlet. I watched her while she hovered over it during the rest of the ride, urgently, as if she were cramming for an exam. She devoured it page by page and I wondered, What is it about poetry and women? I enjoy poetry, but my deeper pleasure is in putting words together, making poems. It is a builder’s pleasure. To tell the truth, I am a bit envious of people who read with such apparent ecstasy.
My old friend Raphael was like that. We spent our first year of college together, going to movies, slipping out for late-night walks and sharing poems. The son of a rabbi, Raphael began to rock back and forth in his seat when he read something he loved. I always imagined him reading the Torah in the same way under his father’s stern eye, his torso moving back and forth with that gleeful rhythm. The more excited he got, the faster he shook. He was moved by words, literally.
The woman in the worn cotton dress did not rock like Raphael but her body was wrapped protectively around the poet’s photocopied, stapled-together labor of love. Her posture said that she had taken those poems deep into her body.
For my part, I wondered what it must feel like to reach another person in such an intimate way. Was the poet even aware of the effect he was having on people? Was that woman a fluke — or were there others on that train mesmerized like her? As a writer myself, I suddenly had to know.
I had two more stops before I had to get off so I gathered my things and pushed my way through the crowded train, struggling against the forward movement of the train, eyeing every rider. Sure enough, in most every car I found at least one woman cradling her recently purchased booklet.
I caught up with the poet just before my station. He was walking down the aisle offering his pamphlet with those same doe-like eyes with their long lashes. But I looked at him now as a sort of witch doctor, hawking a potion. The train was coming to a stop. I had to get off. I grabbed the bill from my pocket even though it was way too much and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. I snatched a pamphlet from his hand then bounded for the door.
On the platform, I sat on a bench and hunched anxiously over my newly-purchased pamphlet; I just had to know how he worked his magic.