After all the subway harangues, the sales pitches for chocolate bars, the children begging, the young men with booming voices waving prescriptions they can’t fill – all wanting money – it is a relief when at last the poets come. They are soft-spoken if they speak at all. They are well but simply dressed — perhaps they wear their hair tied back. They peddle little pamphlets of their own creations or sometimes compilations by better-known poets. The covers carry drawings that are probably their own.
They are earnest but they do not insist. They know that most of the world will brush them aside. But they also know that there are those who cannot. They look at you, as if to say: Our souls exist in solitary confinement but I stand before you like an open book. Do you want me?
Yesterday, a poet boarded the evening subway train I was riding. He distributed his poems in silence, nodding to each person who met his eye. I dug into my pocket as I often do when the poets come. After all, if we don’t support the poets, who will? But being a poet, he couldn’t make change for the bigger bill I held out. We looked at each other, stymied. He couldn’t make change; I needed change. Like two animals at the ends of their tethers, we couldn’t get any closer. He shrugged, took his pamphlet back and moved on. Being a poet, his feelings about commerce were ambiguous.
But a woman in her forties in a slightly-worn cotton dress and a bright green puffer jacket did have a bill of the right denomination. She looked up into his eyes as she proffered it to him. She took the pamphlet from his hand, saying “Gracias” as she did so. The poet nodded without smiling and moved down the wagon, maintaining his perfect poetic ambiguity.
The woman held the pamphlet in her lap with both hands, gazing at the cover for the longest time. She then proceeded to read. She did not flip though lightly but went page by page, reading each one with care before advancing to the next.
As she read, her body arched and her head dropped closer to the poet’s work as her shoulders and arms curved around it in a motherly embrace both loving and defensive, as if she feared someone might try to snatch it away. She touched the pamphlet only to turn the page.
She read urgently, as if cramming for an exam. She devoured the poems page by page. I sensed a tension between her desire to absorb every nuance and her urge to discover what came next.
I was, I admit, a bit envious. What was it like to read something with such need? And what is it about women and poetry? And as a writer and sometime poet myself I had to wonder if someone might ever read my words the way she was reading his. I had felt superior to him when he could not even make change but now I wasn’t sure who had gotten the better part of the deal. I would have liked to see what his words said to understand their power over her.
My stop came before hers – or maybe she had missed hers and couldn’t care less. I never saw her look up to check the station signs. When I turned around on the platform, I saw her back still arched protectively over that stapled, photocopied labor of some poet’s forelorn love. The doors slid closed. There was a jolt and the cars of the train, joined hand-in-hand, began to move. As they gained speed, through the windows I saw lives speed past in ever faster succession until they became a blur and the train screeched into its burrow deep beneath the city. I imagined the poet moving among all those people, on legs accustomed to the jitters of subway life, trafficking his words.
Would he ever know that somewhere in a wagon far behind there was a woman devouring him bit by bit, ingesting him, as if her life depended on it? I suspected he did. I suspected that was why he wrote. Why else would he write and shuffle and peddle through the hordes of deadened eyes unless it was to find the one that at last came alive in his gaze and his verse?