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Thursday, 22 April 2010

Edwin Denby: The Subway


File:NYC subway riders with their  newspapers.jpg

The subway flatters like the dope habit,
For a nickel extending peculiar space.
You dive from the street, holing like a rabbit,
Roar up a sewer with a millionaire's face.

Squatting in the full glare of the locked express
Imprisoned, rocked, like a man by a friend's death,
O how the immense investment soothes distress,
Credit laps you like a huge religious myth.

It's a sound effect. The trouble is seeing
(So anesthetized) a square of bare throat
Or the fold at the crotch of a clothed human being:
You'll want to nuzzle it, crop at it like a goat.

That's not in the buy. The company between stops
Offers you security, and free rides to cops.

File:Inside subway 1973.gif

Edwin Denby: from In Public, In Private (1948)

Interior of F train, Manhattan-bound, 9.25 a.m., 17 May: photo by Travis Ruse, 2005
Inside subway, New York: photo by Erik Calonius, 1973 (National Archives and Records Administration)


TC said...

(For those who are interested, some Edwin Denby background and links are to be found in the comment thread on this earlier post.)

gamefaced said...

'Credit laps you like a huge religious myth'
my exhusband destroyed my credit almost eight years ago and living without the ability to charge is a blessing in disguise.

TC said...

That line is prescient indeed, and I share wholeheartedly in your resolution to live an uncharged life.



Thanks for bringing Edwin Denby back to light in this and for link to earlier comments, where as Frank said "He sees and hears more clearly than anyone else. . . ." As the subway sonnet says here, "It's a sound effect."


whiteness of cloud above still shadowed
slope of ridge, motionless green leaves
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

two drawn versions of this,
tacked to studio wall

here, to be sure, position
to which word attunes

dark grey cloud above shoulder of ridge,
line of pelicans gliding toward horizon

Curtis Roberts said...

The powerful, accurate (“dive”, “holing”, “roar”, “squatting”, “imprisoned”, “rocked”) Denby poem gives about a 270 degree picture of the NYC subway. The three photos almost show the balance, but everyone’s subway experience is personal and different, the literal product of tunnel vision. I love the photo of the dripping pipes (a typical mishap) and the almost classical view of the well-dressed black woman seated in front of the graffiti wall, looking resigned and fatigued. The NY Post and the Chinese newspaper in the third photo are great details, but completeness would dictate the inclusion of well-to-do Wall Street commuters also because everyone rides the subway again, now that taxis have become ruinously expensive. The subway is cleaner, slightly more efficient and apparently safer than it was 20-25 years ago, but it and the Port Authority bus terminal never really change, and remain everybody’s daily experience of the Hellmouth. “La via del tren subterraneo es peligrosa. No salga afuera.” Every schoolchild used to know this.

TC said...


Yes, it's that "No way out" feeling that makes all underworld tunnels such suppressed visceral horrors. Will never forget the experience of being taken as a small child into the simulacrum coal mine at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago. Realistic enough so that, when in later years on a journalistic assignment I went down into a few actual mines (in Colorado), there was an eerie sense of déja vu.

Of course, in between there had been a thousand subways. The Metro in Paris with its seat reserved for those "mutilated in the war", inevitably occupied by the (relatively) non-mutilated. The Madrid subway at rush hour, the most intense experience of human crowding I have ever experienced. New York of course, London, all the many wonderful (not) underworlds of one's internal personal history of "the" world.

The photo of the resigned (and beautifully dignified, as though refusing to allow the circumstance to reduce her to its level) woman: that 1973 photo came of a federal project to document environmental defacement and attrition of the urban landscape.

Ah, but those were merely the darknesses of morning...

TC said...


Thanks, and yes, the "sound effect".

For the roaring of a metal tube in Hell, exchanging the "sound of wave in channel", and for the pipe dripping drainage sludge, "motionless green leaves": definite day-improvements.


Thanks Tom, and yes, "day-improvements."

“The conserving is grounded in a perpetual saving and preserving. This preserving of the unconcealed comes to pass in its pure essence when man strives freely for the unconcealed and does so incessantly through his mortal course on earth.” Heidegger, Parmenides (124)

TC said...


The quote brings to mind re. Edwin's great poem how acknowledgment of the human plays so and weighs so in the urban social anthropology -- all these bodies, all these concealings of the unconcealable, containments of what cannot be contained.

The brutal motiveless public street slaying of an Asian man in front of a Fox Theater in downtown Oakland last week brought to the fore the present local sense of tension of disparate people in closed spaces all in difficulty of one kind or another almost all the time.

What "order" "constrains" the coiling of energies and forces that crackles in the air some nights like the bits of lava thrown off into perpetual ashen darkness by the volcano?

Curtis Roberts said...

I just noticed the last exchange of comments and pulled up local news stories about this. The news hadn't reached Philadelphia, it seems. Inadequate as reporting about the unthinkable tends to be, I find myself speechless, but not without thoughts.

Anonymous said...

desperate eyes

one blackened

embracing a desperate disguise

determined to hide

in the twist of dark black hair

her glory

with a river of untimely silver

his guilty affection

an intolerable burden

on the subway ride home

TC said...


The lovely flat ending to that one brings something a bit like the feeling when the subway emerges from the desperate darkness of the underworld into the calm dispassionate light of day.

TC said...


About that incident, yes, too many thoughts. And for that matter too many immediate observations.

This is not a milieu I would have chosen for my final days, but being stuck with it, I am finding that on the night streets -- where I am a pedestrian perforce, and a weak and hobbled and entirely defensive one at that, to any enquiring eyes -- discretion is definitely the better part of valour.

On second thought, strike "discretion" and make it "fear", and replace "valour" with "survival, hopefully".