21 Stations

7 train, Long Island City, 2013

[Listen to the poem]

Times Square

I’m sitting on the 7 train, penciling amoebas, mocking up

a print set called ‘Three Worlds.’ Above me, sleepy Iowans

drift past parked cars by the Navy recruiting booth

under a spiral of stars, where three roads meet.

There are no car bombs now, nor happy carolers

from Les Miserables, nor soldiers’ families here

to spread the word of an end to fires in Najaf.

Here is the fish lung of the city, where Yoko Ono

charges us to hide till everyone forgets-- nearby

the Odditorium, the Lion King in moonlight.

My daughter’s totally clocked out as an usher

at the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, and I smile

to remember our high hike in the Judean Hills,

listening for Moses and Aaron. On Broadway

you can buy anything: rifles, rice wine, rigatoni.

An afterglow where Hamilton was musket-balled

by Burr, tugs shunting a barge into icy whitecaps,

the sun coming up over the Big Duck of Flanders

in shadows of Shinnecocks oystering North Sea.

Today I‘ll travel the ends of the earth, as beside me

on the train a Sri Lankan youth reads Nietzsche.

Bryant Park

Underground reliefs chart epochs of the Eocene,

a sea of sewers, an Ethernet, mud-caked reservoirs where

I’m pushed along in a throng of commuters who think

the key to work is aftermath. A million jobs are waiting

for those who see beyond the tickertape to a stranded

ovenbird, fashioning a nest by the public library at dawn.

Beneath the trellised gardens, a trove of paper

and papyrus, from Gilgamesh and Sappho,

to Lyle the Crocodile and Go, Dog, Go!,

The Flowers of St. Francis to speak to crows,

a Red Book Guide to Queens, and every tale

by Coetzee cutting a swath of fury through

an easy noontime brunch. My lighthouse,

library of Alexandria, I love you like a lamb,

your cabinets of curiosity without doors.

It’s here I can sleep away time’s tapping,

where Teepee Town once sold Pawnee souvenirs,

crowds mobbed automats, and the Helping

Hand for Men doled out party horns on New Year’s.

We shoot from Tenderloin towards Court Square,

me leaving the catacombs with a folio on Chad.

Grand Central

Battling traffic, Twitter, truth, and irony, I try to catalog

cacophony before it scatters into dust, like a rusted

Redstone rocket in an atrium of acorns, an Internet

of things: a Bulova pocket watch, a lilac necktie,

a farmer’s almanac, a music box, a cricket in a cage.

All this is our Grand Central, a tribute to Palladio,

pigswill, Nick Cave, a parliament of fools, a teething

one-year old, teeny turtles, a keeper of the rocks,

Red Deer Cave People, warriors back from Thebes.

On Platform 47, a man drones fugues of Schubert.

A glass barrette up track emits a smell of diesel.

Remember the backlit Kodak Colorama under stars?

No Cadillacs or smiles, but a plain of jars in Laos,

a forest of elms, endless, desiccated palms, Ford’s

cottages under an exquisite Rio sunset. Now I’m

Mercury, slayer of Argos, a god of traffic, thieves,

temptation, and toy trucks, lost in a maze of foot

and hoof, commuters queuing for a 7:42 express,

compositors crowding Bolivar Tobacco, goshawks

nesting in eaves above the Daily News. With a sudden

lurch, our local pitches into the river of forgetfulness.

Vernon - Jackson Avenues

Cars lurch up out of the Steinway tunnel, screeching

to a halt at Café Henri, by a stand of elms at the mouth

of the Newtown Creek, where feral cats in cubbies

dream of Annapurna fires along a lake. We notice

the carcass of a lorry reeking of peanut oil and piss,

dry oats and red cargo rice on barges buffeting wind.

On the train, Oaxaca mariachis thumb-pick Cielito Lindo,

Bulgarians pass flash cards, muttering rebellious oaths.

Lovers nestle in the car’s corner, dreaming of Baucis

and Philemon, a tale of a goose spared, a metamorphosis,

an oak and linden intertwined amidst a god’s rebuke.

A nature walk uncovers petroglyphs, a philosophy

of sky, a ton of frozen orange concentrate set by.

We watch a sludge boat hug the coast, a dolphin,

lost her compass, bumping her bottlenose upriver.

We stop for tea, a girl in frog boots doodling,

make out Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 (Bright Lode Star),

a satellite best seen from the Korean DMZ, where

Manchurian cranes and ibex lurk. Midtown Tunnel

paper wasps, a water tower boasting Save the Palestine.

We pass as the Pulaski drawbridge opens for a fireboat.

Hunters Point

We strap hang in the fastest-growing borough of New York,

from Burnt Mill Hill and kettle ponds to Arbitration Rock,

intent on our devices, secret purposes, a willingness to cry,

finding in a golden circle of the 7 train, as it veers past P.S. 1,

twin condo towers, an old charcuterie, our origins in gin,

a tapestry of churchyards, and gurgling Sunswick Creek.

We see shadows of thousand-windowed Sunshine Biscuits,

Swingline Staples, armature for Breyer’s Ice Cream’s leaf,

billboards shifting into entropy, ornament, innovation.

We smell the Tom Cat Bakery, the miracle birth

of each loaf of rye, every hand-me-down cupcake

and nut croissant a plan for an end to hunger.

We see cantilever trusses of the bridge of flowers,

imagine hi-rise butterfly farms of 2045, eked out

of back-lot snap peas, with hydroponic watercress,

Kuri cattle, cabbage, carrots, kale, and kelp.

We hear of ships called Cherokee, Adriatic,

bound for seal pup slaughter in Arctic tundra.

We thirty pilgrims meet to ride the circle train,

pass Five Pointz graffiti art and grist, with none

of the blight of Collect Pond across the river.

Court Square

At Court Square we stop to take in artists’ lofts,

in mine ten panels with names of streets in Queens:

Palermo Street, Farmers Boulevard, Utopia Parkway,

Linnaeus Place, Normal Road, and Court Marie.

We pilgrims listen to bits of the 167 tongues

that are spoken here, asking for alms, excusing a lie,

begging pardon, professing a lifelong passion.

We overhear a plaintive dream, where a boy

goes hunting for Ice Age rocks, discovering

a granite outcrop at Twelfth and 43rd, on which

teeters a dinged-up Mustang with no windshield.

At fishing shoals where Mispat squaws would seine

for shad and sturgeon, I kayak out on Arbor Day,

keel over into river muck, squelch over bones

of my ancestors, like Eliphalet Nott, a land-grabbing

cleric who turned a shoreline into gold, sold off

lots to rum distilleries and distributors of caulk.

Starfish creep by dockside carts of oranges:

at Court Square we pause to breathe, unsure

what a hundred Tokyo scribblers are up to, as we

jag and jolt from one side of the world to the other.

Queensboro Plaza

Our Auckland anesthesiologist sucks icy, bottled water,

musing on the death of distance and a giant Jet Blue sign.

Across the platform from where we pilgrims congregate,

a bride in gowns the color of a rock dove takes photos

for an abuelo in Honduras, of factory floors that turned out

horse-drawn carriages, Rolls-Royce cars, and fighter planes.

Below by bike lanes, an army of yellow tulips, a long-gone

petrol pump, the arc of Q train bending towards Astoria.

A bulldozer claws in a borrow pit for another Quality Inn,

wild parrots perch in a canopy of oaks over public housing,

and hawkers mob the Ed Koch Bridge after Hurricane Sandy.

Some of our crew sit sipping beer, like three philosophers,

say nothing and think of islands in the moon, marveling at

why good works won’t bring fame, till a Bombardier arrives

and we renew our journey to the east, our speech borne

into winds of Aeolus, high heels catching at concrete slabs

on an upper tier. Two pilgrims, a Catalan composer,

a Hollis cop, take turns nagging the urban archaeologist

as he’s undercharged us for this whirlwind, five-hour tour.

We settle up, relax, make our way towards Aviation High.

Signs read in Turkish, Urdu, but coffee smells hint Abyssinia.

33rd Street - Rawson Street

We go down through an ornate viaduct, attuned to traffic

on the Boulevard of Death, a Harley headed for Aqueduct

spews enough exhaust for my yearly carbon footprint.

We sense the dun-colored crack of a G-sharp note

that flutters from a Sunnyside window where a child

saws away at mazurkas of Scriabin. At the high school,

teens crank up a Cessna Mescalero for a senior project.

We fall into single file past Sugar Land and a botanica

to reach Padraigh Connolly’s Dog and Duck, for a burger

and a black and tan before we enter a bamboo grove.

The HVAC expert and his wife, a curator at MOMA,

joke with our urban archaeologist (with a career

lying in ruins), as he breaks sticks for a staff, leads us

to blueberry underbrush, black locust, trees-of-heaven.

We climb to Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop coop known

for its red lettuce, beets, its wide-sky panoramic view.

On Skillman Avenue, magnolias burst in one-day bloom,

where a truck of black bananas stalls, dishes clattering

to the tiles in a patio apartment that we may never see.

40th Street - Lowery Street

We pass through a station without stopping, famous

for its weed walk, where burdock, spurge, mulberry,

and lungwort are found in grassy lots at Macdonald’s,

where a pre-war wrestling arena stood when Ronnie,

our librarian, was seventeen, preparing for a prom.

Our attention is fixed inwards, to where engineers

plot revolution on Roosevelt Island as a pinnacle

of nano-everything. Shift workers in orange vests, pile

drivers, drills for track repair in hand, dream of crabs

under bridges in Duluth. A monk chats with a masseuse,

as strangers do, as questions come: on 9/11, where were you?

One of us was in the towers, a yogi off in seventh heaven,

a mother glued to a rotary phone, connected to nothing.

Our cartoonist ran towards flames as a wave of people

poured north, but now she eyes the territory of our car

to gather sketches: the rape of Europa, the rout of Job,

a paradise lost, a daughter prodigal, a copyist under

fire, a skeptic’s education, seen in these careworn faces.

Mets fans chatter their way to an opening double header,

seamstresses read El Diario, the China Press, The Irish Echo.

At two, we rush on haltingly towards wolves in Forest Park.

46th Street - Bliss Street

Our African accountant says he’s never been to Woodside,

adding that it feels like dormitory towns near Accra,

with textiles, plywood, processed foods, and cocoa,

all but cricket fields, ant hills, and Gold Coast ocean.

We walk beyond a promenade to New Calvary, where

100,000 dead exhumed were ferried here, re-buried,

making way for Gilded Age machine tools, locomotives,

steam pumps, oil magnates, brownstones, new arrivals.

Our Bayside vet says there’re more dead than living here.

Can they speak? Do they see contours of a modern city?

We walk to a stile from Louis Ruhe’s Wild Animal Farm,

what’s left of an exotic wildlife stopover, for vaccinations

of American imports before they’re crated up for Barnum

and Bailey, for the burgeoning world of circuses and zoos.

Pythons, rhinos, Russian bears, wild boars, and Hashish

the camel, brought for Coney Island’s ‘Streets of Cairo,’

tiny tapirs, a pyramid of Pomeranians and a talking crow.

We’re undone by wonder, violence, the greed and pillage

of our bountiful land of electric trains we call global village.

52nd Street - Lincoln Avenue

Thomas Merton would say we have to climb up Difficulty Hill

to get to the City of God, to find nirvana in branches of an oak

where an opossum’s been stuck for an hour, gathering quite

a crowd of onlookers under an el train at Lincoln Avenue.

It’s a giant mouse, shouts a guy from Santo Domingo, a little tot

whipping out his slingshot to try and coax her down.

Birders gaze at the gasping clump of fur, forgetting

they were pin-pointing an oriole atop a chain link fence.

Traffic reaches standstill at this tableaux, at lindens

scorched by autumn winds, our troupe of pilgrims ogling

two mashed Subarus under the chain-sawed trunks.

Probably there are snakes below that drainage pit, we hear,

for sure not a Loch Ness monster, but maybe a nest of vipers.

Benign neglect, burning cold, and mindless thinking:

we’re tired, we want to sleep on a rock at Roosevelt.

But we sit in sphagnum moss and count our nickels

for the never-ending fare, for Indonesian noodles,

Mykonos kebab, Manila sweetmeats, Bieżuń blinis,

Delhi curry, Guadalajara tacos with lime and jalapeño.

We meet later at 52nd Street to trade notes on travel.

Our Chilean actor asks, can we visit the Queens Museum?

61st Street - Woodside

Planes plunge down over this commuter railway - subway stop,

so close you can see the whites of the eyes of a stewardess,

buckled in for landing at LaGuardia. She spies a prison bus

tottering across the bridge to Rikers Island, before that

notes a stack of coffins at the edge of a potter’s field.

Woodside Books just opens its roll top door so kids

can pick out used Nintendos for their trip to Montauk.

This being an express stop, we get out and go down

to Donovan’s pub, steps from where a chestnut stood

for public proclamations from the Revolutionary War.

Rattlesnake springs still trickle runoff in what’s left of

filled-in skunk cabbage swamp, where tow paths met

at an apple orchard, biergarten, a German dance hall.

Today a copper beech stands at bygone trolley stops.

Malay, Mayan, Indian, Peruvian, and Thai take pride

in their back yards, sing ballads of better days ahead.

The old plank road to Maspeth’s sunk, replaced by

the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, limos battering

its pot-holed grid, bent on boxing off in Red Hook.

We re-group at Delgado Travel, pick up the pace

towards Trains Meadow and a land of the rising sun.

69th Street - Fisk Avenue

Nearby is the Hall of Science, where Bjork’s busy

orchestrating humpback whales, where a Gemini capsule

languishes, ready to return to outer atmosphere

and mine the red-rock crater dust on Mars.

I took a photo of my daughter there, the Unisphere

as backdrop, her thoughts a million miles away.

At the 1939 World’s Fair, a trylon stood erect

like my own beloved’s sculptures, a testament

to constructivists who build from the outside in.

Superman was there, and Cal Coolidge’s pygmy

hippo Billy, a talking robot, Vermeer’s Milkmaid,

a rotolactor that could only be for milking cows,

a frozen mole, a girlie show from the lama of Jehol.

Here the U.N. Secretariat held court to partition

the Holy Land, summoning a wisdom of Solomon.

What I admire most is the Philip Guston fresco,

signaling a return to public works, green meet-ups,

peace and understanding, the focus of the next

World’s Fair my family visited when I was seven.

I remember Belgian waffles, a Sinclair brontosaurus,

a discomfort in the car that foreshadowed a divorce.

74th Street - Broadway

In Jackson Heights, bright spot smelling of lemon cardamom,

pony-tailed twins at the E train play wildly on Andean flutes.

We make an .mp4, send it to Barbara’s brother in Berlin,

who, laughing, says he knows them from Kurfurstendamm.

Music travels over time, city, in waves of loneliness or grief.

I take our gathered pilgrims to the Chateau, where gardeners

mulch at African violets and scrap over a pile of dog poop,

presumably from Teddy, a 16-year old whippet, racetrack

survivor, whose bleary eyes are glazed with utter joy.

Some of us try on saris and savor goat in Little India,

peer into a window where you can buy a house in La Paz

a dollar at a time. Farsi poets sit, discussing cosmic wheels

and daily crosswords. We sometimes take a bus from here

to Jamaica Bay to walk and talk-- light rain, vapor trails above,

sodden projects in East New York that beckon a child’s love.

Eider ducks, elf owls, coconut husk washed up in sea wrack.

This is the fourteenth station stop, a sunny Via Dolorosa,

blood-sacrifice coming only from the Columbian cartel.

At Roosevelt and 79th, we cover our ears, a passing truck

so deafening we can’t hear to gather courage to continue.

In Jackson Heights, soccer bars have replaced the lily pads.

for Bruno Swiezinski, 1955-2012

82nd Street - Jackson Heights

We’ve lost three members of our coterie, to chest colds, bunions,

a colicky ten-month old with eyes as blue as agate, but we press on

to Junction Boulevard, recounting our walks to sundry lands

in search of no one can quite say what, from Fuji to Athos

or Rumi’s tomb, Little Sparta, Lourdes, bathing in the Ganges,

making the Hajj to Mecca, to Burning Man or Walden Pond,

to Our Lady of Guadalupe, or maybe to Jefferson’s grave.

And why? We pilgrims think: to learn, to seek, to shout,

undo, caress, to grasp, reframe, begin again, to smile.

Hopkins says it’s a process of un-selving, letting ego go,

listening to chaos, letting words flow. Here I walk most

days to the orchard at St. Marks, where worshippers

intone “ I thirst,” where I start every poem or startle

a feeling into shape of rime ice, icicles, or icebergs.

I stroll to Northern Boulevard, an old carriage road,

to monitor the spire on downtown’s Freedom Tower.

I exult in alphabets of unnecessary things: acrid onions,

bulbous noses, cracked corn, dead eels, elephant tusks,

fish gills, gear-bits, horse dung, jumping rats, open doors,

uninvited guests, woolen underwear, you get the point,

if you at all read English, but I’ve lost my train of thought.

90th Street - Elmhurst Avenue

Known for its Newtown pippins, a Ten Ren Tea shop, Elks Lodge,

Geeta Temple, United Sherpa Church, the neighborhood

is what our Haitian sociologist calls lower middle class,

with aspirations bent on bride price, bocce, bar mitzvah,

dragon boats and Holi, the Hindu festival of colors.

Hoovervilles became a housing blight that festers.

Once Elmhurst gas tanks could be seen from the L.I.E.,

answering the child's eternal cry: Are We There Yet?

From here on in it’s urban zones, dense-packed crowds,

an anathema to William Levitt, the father of suburbia,

whose cookie-cutter Levittowns transformed a nation.

Raccoons, starlings, and the occasional spiny porcupine

straddle a once-green belt between these worlds.

We pilgrims navigate a fragile state, expanding our cities

with bucolic names - Kew Gardens, Briarwood, Pomonok,

masking the underlying stress, the poverty and crime.

Malcolm X lived here with daughters and his wife,

a Lear in agony, living through tempests of civil rights,

his house firebombed in 1965, just before he lost his life.

On the sidewalk, we see a man kneeling at call to prayer.

Junction Boulevard

I’ve drifted into daydream as we barrel out of Elmhurst,

I’m channeling rhythms or guitar riffs from Neil Young

on his Greendale tour, my family sitting on a hillside,

three of us at once loving something together wholly.

Here’s America’s Rift Valley, with a half-sunk house

of worship, a Lares deli, ‘hood hoops, ox-eye daisies.

We amble to the remains of Tiffany’s furnace works

where Lilliputian tea sets mimicked Roman-Syrian

charred glass of opalescent gold and turquoise blue.

Outside a Salumeria, we hear steel drum calypso

at set-back family homes forgotten by a mayor.

Trainspotters come: Lucien, who’s ten, enumerates

car types in Redbird Reef, a coral archipelago

off Slaughter Bay in Delaware, where 7s go to die,

with tanks, armored personnel carriers, barges

and a ton of Firestone tires, its green waters

home to barnacles, horseshoe crabs, and squid.

We meet Olivia, who’s writing of carusi boys

who toiled in sulfur mines in Agrigento, Sicily:

our herpetologist is shocked, says he’ll postpone

his search for the extirpated chorus frog of Queens.

for Dorothy Schmiderer Baker

103rd Street - Corona Plaza

Blocks from Lemon Ice King of Corona, 1965 World’s Fairgrounds,

Brazilian Adventists, and a School of the Transfiguration,

Louis Armstrong lived on a quiet street, with gigs

in Storyville, San Francisco, Quarrybank, Quebec,

Cameroon and the Belgian Congo. His smile, his style,

big heart, and gravelly voice transformed the sound

of jaundice into jazz. He charmed children on his stoop,

Marilyn and JFK, and the King of Thailand (on the sax).

‘Meet Me in Paris’ floods from an upstairs room,

a turntable spinning his sermon on beans and rice.

We sit in the garden as honeysuckle drips, robins

pulling at red worms, all of us taken by a cheery lilt,

as the ghosts of Ellington and Ella are ushered in.

I close my eyes and hear his ‘Melancholy Blues’

as it soars into space with Voyager, with Bach,

shakuhachi, Pondicherry ragas, bagpipes, gamelan,

as well as dog barks, code taps, shots of Pluto,

Jupiter, a nursing mother, a Shasta food store,

a spiral diagram of dancing sperm and ovum.

Reeling off into ether, 100 million miles away,

it’s music of Earth we crave as we journey on.

111th Street

Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby is out in theatres, with Leo DiCaprio

as leading man. The 1930s drive from East Egg to the city

meant crossing a Valley of the Ashes, a cinder hill here

for the burning coal, much as Dead Horse Bay recycled

carcasses of mares, as glue, from the city’s livery.

Before we stop, we spy a Matinecock in a beaver hat,

who a lady takes to be Túpac Amaru, King of the Incas,

in town to dispute rebuilding of the Kosciusko Bridge

on elders’ land that once was bogs and fens and brake.

Teamsters, hostlers, potato pickers in from Quogue

loiter by news stands, all eyes on our video guy

who tries to replicate a Dada film about a ride

on the Third Avenue El before it is demolished.

Like Muybridge’s stop-motion studies, it’s subway life

run backwards, inwards, in eerie black and white.

An R62A express speeds by on flyover tracks, a local

shunting off to Corona yards. We sup at Tortilleria

Nixtamal, with masa and red posole from ranches in

Tulcingo, where rodeos, romance, and flower wars

with human sacrifice were once the order of the day.

Tupac’s with us on the train, still seeking his lost spirits.

Mets - Willets Point

This 13-block stretch between Shea and the Flushing River

has no sidewalks or cisterns, but plenty of palsied dogs

just moaning at the setting sun. Car parts, chop shops,

iron works abound in a triangle of puddle muck,

our third world just minutes from the city’s navel.

Bawdy talk, sex shops, pin-ups, pricks who skip on bills.

Two Serbs, Pick-Thank and Zizek, pound hubcaps

into useful life. Junket stinks. The single resident,

a Joseph Ardizzone, like Timon of Athens curses

his detractors as he doesn’t want to move to make

way for more of House of Spices’ store or shopping

scenes that call to mind the Mall of Emirates, with Ski

Dubai, a fireworks’ fountain, a petting zoo. Maybe

a stadium for the next Diego Maradona? A pushcart

rolls off a corrugated roof by a barrel burning trash.

Bodily fluids seep by, yellowlegs wading in the creek.

This is the urban Land of Oddiyana. We don’t get off,

we keep on towards our final destination, Chinatown.

A man points out thinning cirrus clouds beyond what

once were peonies for as far as the eye could see,

today a good spot to detail your Lincoln Continental.

Flushing - Main Street

Now that we’ve reached the end, we don’t know where to go.

We thank our archaeologist, split up to see the Weeping Beech,

beehives in the Botanical Garden, a Seoul patisserie,

and Biang!, a noodle shop from Xi’an province

where we hear of thieves’ tales that Mao adored

from the Shi Hu Chuan, All Men Are Brothers, in the land

of Lao-tse, hundred-year old eggs, and sprouting factory

towns like Sock City, Underwear Village, Necktie Bend.

All roads lead to the site of the Remonstrance, a Quaker

plea to Peter Stuyvesant to halt his ban on silent worship.

We sip tea at an Afghan eatery, where we meet our

final penitent, a soldier just returned from combat.

She recalls an experience of vanishing, and happy

children rolling metal hoops as festive crowds skip

pebbles off a pontoon bridge on the Kabul river.

I sit at dusk by the Amadeus Music School, a bus

stop for the Bronx, and 7 Train Tattoo, musing

on how we survived the Toba human bottleneck

or ended up chasing bats in Flushing, putting a last

pig bristle tip of enamel to my painted street sign,

just as I position a last period to follow this final word.

for Arthur Smith, 1913-1999

Coda 22 - Hudson Yards

We're chatting in Brooklyn's Shakespeare Garden,

listening to a Chinese violin. So far from Queens,

pondering how to adjust my 21, 21-line poem

of the 7 train to a 22nd subway stop

at Hudson Yards, already sprouting out of

old tunnels like aphrodisiacs, baby mushroom

spores and stores of lilies spilt. But it’s

Toshiko Mori's teardrop bud that bursts

from elevated tracks where a Budapest boy

and I used to roam West Side piers, aping

at civic discourse, civil surgeons of the INS

sucking the living daylights out of us, our

late orthogonal thinking: heat maps, 45 m.p.h.

pneumatic tubes for dried-up stallion shit.

All of our politicians leak blood that’s blue,

so it seems if you say something it is true.

It sounds like it’s raining in Cirque de Mafate,

Réunion, so here we are, soaking in late sun

of a bonsai forest, rosemary, where fairy terns

skim by and deliver us gold dust to keep

our amity and love aloft to sleep and breathe.


It would fill a volume, in an age of pamphlets, were I to record all my observations in this great capital of human business and pleasure.

Hawthorne, “The Celestial Railroad”

With looking from the lattice-lights at me,

A poor, tired, wandering singer, singing through

The dark, and leaning up a cypress tree?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’

The unnatural, that too is natural.


About the Work

’21 Stations’ evokes lives and music and history along the 21 stations of the 7 train, the 167 languages spoken there, journeying EAST out of the city. This piece formally is a set of 21, 21-line poems, what I call sonnets-and-a-half. It is about the patchwork quilt of culture across Queens as seen in the river of commerce, reflection, and imagination of the 7 train. It features a meditation by Mercury, the god of travel, thieves, temptation, and toy trucks, including two World’s Fairs (red trolley cars now coral reefs for fish and squid in Delaware), shadows of Louis Armstrong, Malcolm X, and porcupines and ibises from Levittown, to Aviation High School, to cobbled lanes for Farsi poets, Italian shoemakers, and temple elders from Tibet.

In 2015 the New York City subway added one more subway stop to the 7 line, at Hudson Yards. My poem was complete and integral at 21 (with 21, 21 line poems, each a sonnet-and-a-half)... now I've added the Coda poem to address what I should do about the addition.

The poem goes on to reflect on Korean car parts men, chop shops, intellectuals, mad urban planners, the history of the demise of the American farmyard (and hints of our Native American ancestry), retooled lives, abuelas from Honduras, lawyers from Indonesia, drummers from Bangladesh, Columbian hair dressers, mobsters, and drag queens, Nepalese shamans, rooftop kale farmers, baby carriage pushing Dads and golf-course gardeners. Thirty pilgrims set out from Times Square to wend their ways to the Weeping Beech in Chinatown, in Flushing, where bats can still be seen in belfries.

Dramatis Personae

  1. Accra accountant

  2. Auckland anesthesiologist

  3. Bayside vet

  4. Bjork, orchestrating humpback whales

  5. Bride from Honduras

  6. Cartoonist

  7. Catalan composer

  8. Chilean actor

  9. Girl in frog boots

  10. Haitian sociologist

  11. Herpetologist

  12. Hollis cop

  13. HVAC expert

  14. Lucien, ten-year old train-spotter

  15. Masseuse

  16. Mercury (poet)

  17. Mets fans

  18. Monk

  19. Oaxaca mariachis

  20. Olivia, writer

  21. Poet’s daughter, Charlotte

  22. Ronnie, librarian

  23. Seamstresses

  24. Soldier, back from Kabul

  25. Sri Lankan youth

  26. Tokyo scribblers

  27. Túpac Amaru

  28. Urban archaeologist

  29. Video guy

  30. Wife, curator at MOMA

© 2013