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Monday, 8 April 2013

Messages from the Underground


Many subway cars in New York City have been spray-painted by vandals

It's unnatural to man
to go down among the dead
in the light of lost worlds. In the

of lost words
the handwriting on the wall says
all things to all people. And thereby

all people are given to understand
who have gone down among the dead
in the cold light of indecipherable words,


 This "Broadway Local" subway car, like many others, has been decorated by vandals

Vandals have spray-painted this subway car

Subway car

Commuters on subway

Interior of graffiti-marked subway car

Times Square subway station and subway graffiti

 Vandals have spray-painted messages on walls of this subway station (116th Street)

Trains like this one have been spray-painted by vandals

Subway trains like this one have been spray-painted by vandals

Man backs away from roar of subway train

A woman waits for a train at the 79th Street Station

125th Street elevated train platform

125th Street elevated train platform

Photos by Erik Calonius, May 1973, for the Environmental Protection Agency's Documerica project (U.S. National Archives)


Nin Andrews said...

I love this poem!

Marie W said...

Stunning, stunning pictures! And being a frequent user of the Tokyo metro your words resonate with me. I often think what am I doing down here, how did this giant underground maze happen, how can it carry millions of people every day, who is walking right on top of us now? Oh but I love those messages. There is nothing like that here. Everything is so clean and sterile. The only messages are ads. And the endless "do it at home" series Manners

TC said...

Many thankyous, Nin and Marie.

Marie, your comment about the Tokyo underground station brought back the staggering images which we saw, just over two years ago now, when the great quake hit.

At the time I was struck by the way citizens of Tokyo seemed to remain relatively composed in the midst of an atmosphere of impending catastrophe. The mere thought of being trapped underground made the sense of horror particularly acute.

Of course the impression that everything was or soon would be "under control" was false, but still -- what good was panic going to do?

I think in particular of the bottom picture in a post from that time -- the elderly gentleman sitting on the steps, apparently relaxed, at any rate smiling and talking, while other commuters appear bored, or attempt to eat, sleep, read, basic get-on-with-it human things... the whole scene eerily reflected and skewed off-kilter in the glass surface above, a broken image as in a funhouse mirror:

City: An Illusion of Control (20 March 2011)

Of course, there the potential for social collapse, even the outbreak of a generalized madness, seems to remain contained and latent. In the New York subway images, the madness is immediately present, as ambient text (e.g. the word "War" at the bottom of the top shot), but perhaps too familiar and routinized even to be noticeable.

That brilliant post of the Tokyo Metro Subway series you've linked to captures the difference between these two societies in a very striking way.

"Please Do It In America" -- right! And everyone does!!

BTW I ride the night buses here; of course we have quakes and continual threats of more and larger quakes here too, and you couldn't get me on the cross-bay underground trains to save my life (not that it's particularly worth saving at this stage, but still). Total claustrophobia and urban dread. The inner beast wants to flee back to the jungle asap. Last year I stepped out of my house one night and was run over by a car, nearly killed. Urban reality trumps one's deepest fears and phobias "on any given day". I don't know that it's any safer above ground than below, really.

Jolene Navarro said...

I'm would love to be able use your picture of my Great Uncle Norris for my blog.Of course I would give you credit and a link to your site.

Jolene Navarro said...

Hello Tom, I'm a writer from Leakey and Boerne. I have a blog and I'm posting about a mint green milkshaker my grandmother got while working at her brother's drug store. I would love to use your picture. Of course I would give you credit and a link to your blog. I posted here because I couldn't leave a post on the Leakey one. Thank you

TC said...

Hello Jolene, and sure, that would be fine so long as the photo is properly attributed -- to the photographer Marc St Gil, and to this blog where it was posted.

(By the way, I'd be interested to know just which of those Leakey shots has your great uncle in it...)

TC said...

OK Jolene, that's fine.

In case other folks are interested, that drugstore shot comes halfway down in this post of the late Marc St Gil's wonderful series from Leakey, Texas:

Marc St Gil: Wading in the Water

(That's about as far away from the New York subway as it would be possible to get...)

De Villo Sloan said...

A powerful composition of words and images, Tom. It sent me digging for a poem I barely remembered. Found it: Ted Berrigan's "Wrong Train."

Artemesia said...

TC.. I loved your Messages From The Underground.

Recalled some beautiful Oscar Williams, the first from "Poetry," July 1921

by Oscar Williams

The subway is lit like a great cathedral,
And myriad shadows whisper and float.
But the eyes of darkness are filled with fury,
And a scream of steel is in the wind's throat.
The trains are moving like things of madness,
And the eyes of men have a glassy stare.
Where is the music of holiness?
And where the uplifted face of a prayer?

This one I only have in full text..a bit long, but special, I think..

The Leg in the Subway
by Oscar Williams

Then I saw the woman's leg on the floor of the subway train,
Protrude beyond the panel (while her body overflowed my mind's eye),
When I saw the pink stocking, black shoe, curve bulging with warmth,
The delicate etching of the hair behind the flesh-colored gauze,
When I saw the ankle of Mrs. Nobody going nowhere for a nickel,
When I saw this foot motionless on the moving motionless floor,
My mind caught on a nail of a distant star, I was wrenched out
Of the reality of the subway ride, I hung in a socket of distance:
And this is what I saw:

The long tongue of the earth's speed was licking the leg,
Upward and under and around went the long tongue of speed:
It was made of a flesh invisible, it dripped the saliva of miles:
It drank moment, lit shivers of insecurity in niches between bones:
It was full of eyes, it stopped licking to look at the passengers:
It was as alive as a worm, and busier than anybody in the train:

It spoke saying: To whom does this leg belong? Is it a bonus leg
For the rush hour? Is it a forgotten leg? Among the many
Myriads of legs did an extra leg fall in from the Out There?
O Woman, sliced off bodily by the line of the panel, shall I roll
Your leg into the abdominal nothing, among the digestive teeth?
Or shall I fit it in with the pillars that hold up the headlines?
But nobody spoke, though all the faces were talking silently,
As the train zoomed, a zipper closing up swiftly the seam of time.

Wooden Boy said...

Moving from "lost worlds" to "lost words". And that last solitary word, "messages"; nothing but traces here.

To take such photographs requires proper brassneck. Few have it. Some of those faces are very empty, work weary.

Marie W said...

I remember quietly waiting in line for bottles of water days after the earthquake. I used to call it "organised panic". I know people were really concerned about the situation, but they knew it was no use creating more agitation. Very civilised. That helped a lot.
"Please do it in America" - borderline rude isn't it. Yet another facet of this society.
Stay safe!

Anonymous said...

it seems that those spaces make words to show naturally or desperately

Nora said...

si lunga tratta
di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto
che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta.

Nora said...

Oops, I think I just misquoted.

e dietro le venìa sì lunga tratta
di gente, ch’i’ non averei creduto
che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta.

TC said...

Si lunga tratta
di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto
che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta.

So long a train of people, that I should never have believed death had undone so many

Dante, Inferno III, 55-57

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Eliot, The Waste Land, I. 62-3

Some of those faces are very empty, work weary...


"& like that we cross a river
Into the Afterlife."

Ted Berrigan, Wrong Train

The trains are moving like things of madness,
And the eyes of men have a glassy stare.

Oscar Williams, The Subway Is Lit

...I remember quietly waiting in line for bottles of water days after the earthquake. I used to call it "organised panic".


it seems that those spaces make words to show naturally or desperately


Diverse lingue, orribili favelle,
parole di dolore, accenti d’ira,
voci alte e fioche, e suon di man con elle

facevano un tumulto, il qual s’aggira
sempre in quell’ aura sanza tempo tinta,
come la rena quando turbo spira.

Languages diverse, horrible dialects,
Accents of anger, words of agony,
And voices high and hoarse, with sound of hands,

Made up a tumult that goes whirling on
For ever in that air for ever black,
Even as the sand doth, when the whirlwind breathes.

Dante, Inferno III, 25-30

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.

Edwin Denby: The Subway

Jonathan Chant said...

Just had a long weekend in London - so the beautiful poem resonates having gone down into that strange dark world.

TC said...


Glad to have you back up among the living.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

The Subway

and the underground

message said sandwich
people alive--

better that way
than dead.

TC said...


My subway memories, thankfully fading, still include more than a few vivid recollections of those overcrowded-underground scenes that evoke the phrase "human sandwich". Something about the pungent aroma and grinding crush of a rush hour subway jammed with bodies. I recall New York as being pretty bad, Paris and London equally so at times, but none of the above quite so suffocating as the sardine-tin crunch of the Madrid subway in peak hours, especially on a warm summer day. Phew!

One can hopefully attempt but never quite succeed in the sort of shrinkage of the corpus that would allow the overcoming of that law of physics which proposes that two bodies cannot fit into the same space at the same time.

TC said...


I don't know what the deal is with you, but after putting up every comment you've left here over the years, I've now been running about to catch up with your second-thought commands to delete every blessed one of those comments. I've now wasted my time (again), taking down a half dozen or so, only to find a fresh list of commands from you.

Puh-lease, dear, have a bit of consideration, can you not?

I'm an old person, in poor health, and it's possible that what little time I may have left is at least as precious to me as your time is to you. So -- enough already, and thank you very much!!