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Weekly Prompt: Transportation

2010 November 19

A bicyclist pauses at an intersection in New York City while a sea of yellow taxicabs moves around him.

I’ve always found that one of the occasions on which I am best able to write is when I’m traveling.  I don’t drive, and so whenever I need to go somewhere that is too far away to be reached by bike, I ride all sorts of buses, trains, planes, shuttles, trams, taxis, and other forms of mass transit in order to reach my destination.  There is something uniquely meditative about these trips: despite the fact that I am usually surrounded by—even crushed in against—other passengers, the motion and sound of the vehicle and the relative anonymity of being amidst a crowd of strangers provide me with excellent opportunities to listen, observe, and record.

In Oliver de la Paz’s poem “Aubade with a Thistle Bush Holding Six Songs,” the speaker engages with the sensory aspects of his experience on a train in order to contextualize a portrait of a fellow passenger:

A man told me that he had wasted his life. I did not know him.
We were on a train moving from one trespass to the next,
the fields in the windows shifting utterly into daybreak.

As the poem progresses, we find that the train itself and the experience of traveling on it have become the primary device by which this portrait is rendered:

The rails below us were making comparisons
as if they were saying look at the thorn tree gone wild,
look at the gravel kicked on the ties.

I wondered about the hollow of the guitar and of the voice of the man.
It’s always like this on trains‹the burn of your ear
when a stranger speaks over the sun cutting through windows.

The speaker, who knows nothing about this man besides what he has heard and seen of him within the context of the train ride, finds that the sound of the train and the slant of the light through its windows merge into his vision of this stranger, until, by the end of the poem, the man is absorbed into the greater network of train trips and other journeys that form the speaker’s experience: he is, the speaker states, just one of many strangers “who’s asked me for an ear.”  Like so many piece of luggage, some of those people’s stories have been remembered by the speaker, while others’ have been “left at the station.”  Most, we imagine, have suffered the latter fate.  But the speaker remembers this particular man’s story because of the way that his memory of it is mediated by his own experience of the train ride.  What he recalls most vividly is not the content of the story itself, but the scene outside the window of the train as it was being told: the three birds that “blur by,” and the way that their flight fixed this particular stranger into the speaker’s memory, as if sticking his name “to a thistle.”

Prompt: Write a poem that uses the sensory experience of riding a particular form of transportation as a device by which to relate the story of a journey or trip that you’ve taken.

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