Category Archives: CTA

Commute

d9d4c68cb3bb5818776e12b294909c8bThe key wouldn’t turn the way it needed to. He tried for some time and then had to go to work. On the way he told himself an unlocked door is fine as long as no one tries it, and he couldn’t be late again or he’d have no money for rent.

He thought briefly about calling her because she still had a key and might have the touch to make the lock work. She did much better with objects, understood subtle shifts of position and emphasis that made them cooperate. Every thing seemed troublesome to him. At first, she’d found his confusion charming and laughed at his clumsy handling, but her impatience grew like a bass hum in an audio line, building until it overwhelmed the signal.

On the day she left, she locked the door. He returned expecting to find the apartment open and her inside making something to eat, as that morning she’d offered. Instead, he found a note on the bare table explaining she’d taken most of her things and would be back for the others that weekend. Nothing in the note explained why really, but he understood.

They could be friends, she promised.

He’d be late anyway. The L always chose the worst time to delay and, between each station, a voice announced, “Your attention please: We are standing momentarily, waiting for signal clearance. We expect to be moving shortly.” Sometimes the message just finished as the train lurched to life, the air conditioner stirring as it engaged. Sometimes the lull continued, passengers doing their best to pretend they hadn’t heard.

“What are your ambitions?” she’d asked him once.

He shrugged. The degree he’d earned wasn’t practical, and, encouraged by his parents to “follow his bliss,” he’d never thought much about income. He’d always worked, never at anything, however, he’d devote a life to. He settled between jobs. He knew what he’d like and what, in the meantime, he might do to get by. When the getting by squeezed everything else out, he felt strange relief. Absolved from dreaming, he could live instead.

She might have left him when she took her new post or three months later when she received her first promotion. He took her staying as proof she loved him as he was but also detected her restlessness, the way she seldom sat with him anymore, never simply read or watched something with him.

Before the L reached his stop, he’d vacated his seat for an old man bent by labor or some previous injury into an awkward S. They’d passed a light smile, and he thought momentarily about speaking but recalled how she hated that, her forced laugh when he’d explained his parents’ faith in casual conversation.

One of his friends asked if he knew she’d started seeing someone else. He said, “Yes,” though, of course, he hadn’t. In retrospect, the hints lay everywhere, but he’d thrown himself into work, taking unnecessary shifts and covering co-workers when they or family members became ill. She’d scolded him. He might have noticed how he neglected her.

“And for what?” He almost said the words aloud.

Every time he passed through the revolving door at the station he had to think which way to turn—something in the bars scared him, and those exits always reminded him of factory machines to knead or slice bread. A man in a business suit behind him almost ran over him. He glanced back in mute apology.

On the street, peeking at his phone, he saw the hour had passed. The manager wouldn’t really be angry because he’d been a dutiful employee and a good co-worker, a good boy. Still, involuntarily, his pace quickened.

Their first conversation after she left was to arrange a meeting that never happened. She needed to talk to someone, and he said he had a conflict too. Since then, they’d spoken twice on the phone. The second time, he’d meant to be dignified when she asked how he’d been, but he’d been honest.

“I’m pretty miserable,” he said.

She tried to console him, but nothing she said stuck.

Down the block, he saw the familiar storefront and one of his coworkers cranking the handle to release and extend the awning. That was his job, he thought, and then he heard his own voice, barely audible on the busy street.

“Go home,” it said, “call a locksmith.” And, before another moment passed, he turned and went.

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Filed under Ambition, Chicago, CTA, Desire, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Modern Life, Rationalizations, Resolutions, Solitude, Thoughts, Urban Life, Work

Five Protopoems

With the crush of school starting Monday, I’m opting out of a formal post and offering an apologetic bouquet of buds from the pad I keep in my back pocket. Like everything written there, they may be on their way to becoming something else—poems probably—but maybe there’s something appealing in their half-formation.  I hope so.  This is all I have this week.

1.

The increments within hours trip over each other in a crowded line.  We might laugh if we weren’t so busy looking away, hoping for an invisible order to descend and become the backbone of time.

2.

The rhythm of a scooter passing over joints in the sidewalk, the pitch of a child’s voice stretching to my open window on the third floor…

Their parent’s voices are plainer, wheedling them to stop, go in, leave an evening chill no child can feel.

The children waylay every dog to learn its name.  They say “Bye bye” to use its meaning up.  And the traffic passes in sighs.  The light cools to gray as their scooters roll deep into twilight.

I look down to discover their parents, sitting and stooped, silent in their company.

3.

Two orchids remain on the arm that once bore more blossoms than it could support alone.  Maybe the plant feels lighter with less of its life spent in show, but I watch days waiting for them to wither and fall.

Their faces peer up into the sun, turning from my attention.

4.

I know what you are telling me.   You say, if I really look I might see the globe turning on itself and catch day from the front.

You want me to live before what befalls us.  But I’ve never believed.

If I could, you say, I might laugh my million cells open, burst like a comb of honey made perfume again or, like days loosed from borders of dawn and dusk, forget the count of seconds on seconds.

Your advice: stare into dark’s face.  When tears start, I might meet you fully.  We’ll swim in the same ink.

I know what you want—belief aflame in the heart of each atom.  Downwind, I smell the smoke, invisible and unreal.

5.

Beneath the tracks, the roar of the train washes away everything but a shrug of futility.  I start to say what I began that, in that pause, turned to something else.

The sun crawls out of a cloud and draws a lattice of shadow on the sidewalk.  When it crawls back in again, I swallow the words.

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Filed under Chicago, CTA, Doubt, Experiments, Home Life, life, Meditations, Memory, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Writing

No-Count Sentences

In recent weeks, I’ve been reading haiku journals online and have discovered that the rest of the world has stopped counting syllables.  So, in writing my daily haiku, I’ve decided to stop too.  It’s hard, putting your fingers away after years of use, but I look more carefully at what, apart from form and convention, haiku are.

The beat poet Allen Ginsberg said he never understood haiku and preferred his own “American Sentences.”  He still counted—the sentences were supposed to be 17 syllables—but mostly he focused on the immediacy of a single observation.  In my journal, I’ve been experimenting with un-metered notions, jotting down thoughts I’d consider poetic instead of prosaic.

I’ve offered 15 prose poem-lets  below, each with its own title.  They are hardly polished or condensed—Mr. Ginsberg would disapprove—but I sometimes wonder what I sacrifice in editing.  Shortening them to 17 syllables might make them something else…

1. A THOUGHT BEFORE REALLY WAKING

The blackbird’s song holds a hole of night open and then squeezes it shut.

2. UNDER SCRUTINY

All the doors watch me, smug knowing where I’ve been.

3. THE HOTTEST DAY OF THE SUMMER SO FAR

By ten, we sweat coffee… but still can’t steer the air’s torpor.

4. DISTRACTED

The shadow of your chair: a creature tangled in mixed intentions.

5. MOMENTARY STATE OF ANXIETY

Words escaped from billboards gather outside town to shout us to silence.

6. WAITING FOR SOMEONE AT A PARK BENCH

Trees as ants see them—every road promises heaven, then splits and dwindles and splits and dwindles until it reaches an impossible shore of sky.

7. WAITING FOR SOMEONE AT A PARK BENCH (FIVE MINUTES LATER)

Maybe the trip down is better, merging until you enter the earth together and on one path.

8. STALLED CONVERSATION

You say you’ve had enough.  I can’t think of anything I’ve had enough of.

9. A. D. D.

A bird flying by a window reminds me how little I see.

10. RELIGIOUS THINKING ON THE L

Every train a little ark, all the world you might know.

11. DOZING ON THE L

As I neared sleep, I saw some graffiti-ed light inside my eyelids and thought, “Hey, who put that there?”

12. WISDOM AS A BODY

Everything has an elbow, something you can’t get near enough to know.

13. WATCHING A NATURE DOCUMENTARY ON THE SEA FLOOR

The rising puddles of air—maybe the dead are down there, hoping their voices will one day surface.

14. SUBJECTIVE OBSERVATION

Bells swing their hems, showing their asses, sounding the same note the same way to a world they assume adores them.

15. TROUBLE GETTING TO SLEEP

Why did you slip and say “Goodbye” instead of “Goodnight”?

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Filed under Allen Ginsberg, American Sentences, Chicago, CTA, Doubt, Experiments, Haiku, Home Life, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Writing

Showing and Telling Redux

Up the block, the L passes over our street and, if you’re talking when the train arrives, noise obliterates any conversation.  In my family, whoever is speaking gets to supply a concluding statement when the roar evaporates…

… and that’s why lettuce makes a poor undergarment.

… so Grandmother didn’t even need to swallow one goldfish, much less twenty.

… the moral of the story is, don’t let infants paint.

… then I decided “Chuckles” wasn’t a good wrestling name, after all.

My daughter says we could turn these statements into real fiction, but, as stories go, they seem flawed—all telling (no showing) and too easy because the teller never has to do the work of reaching that moment.

These endings, however, do spur me to think. What transforms observations or moments into a story? What makes a narrative?

The difference between narrative and lyrical poems seems helpful here.  A lyrical poem is emotional. As the term suggests, its underlying tone—its music, if you like—organizes its contents.  In contrast, while narrative poems have tone, sequence controls them.  Put simply, one event leads to the next.

But the difference seems more complicated. What’s an event?  What do you do with information like description or dialogue?  If you think of reading psychologically, every sort of information spurs the mind to search, looking for connections or leading to conjectures about anything that may prove important. Where is the narrative then, in the writing or in the reader’s mind?

As demonstration, consider this lyrical poem by William Carlos Williams, “Nantucket”:

Flowers through the window
lavender and yellow

changed by white curtains—
Smell of cleanliness—

Sunshine of late afternoon—
On the glass tray

a glass pitcher, the tumbler
turned down, by which

a key is lying— And the
immaculate white bed

The poem sidesteps events altogether, appearing to be pure description. It contains no real verbs, only participles functioning as adjectives—the flowers can be described as “changed” by the curtain, the tumbler can be described as “turned down,” and the key can be described as “lying” next to the bed, but they don’t do anything. Initially, the objects don’t even seem particularly interesting.  Flowers, curtains, a clean smell, a glass try and pitcher, some glasses turned over, and a key beside a bed. A pretty still life, but still.

Yet my mind makes these details into a story.  Nothing in the poem directly tells me so, but the key, the flowers, and the glasses turned over suggest a Nantucket hotel room.  I think of Nantucket as a place for visiting rather than residing, and those usually familiar flowers are “changed” here along with everything else.  These simple things cry for explanation.  I know the poet has used “glass” twice, but why substitute “tumbler” for an object containing liquid—why not “goblet”?  And what should I do with the secondary meaning of words like “tumbler,” which is also someone who performs athletic leaps, rolls, and somersaults… or the workings of a lock?  What about “immaculate,” which is not only absolutely clean but also Mary’s sexless conception?  Out of context, the word “lying” suggests something false or misleading.  Is that important?

And there’s also Williams’ characteristic voyeurism.  Is he outside the room or inside it?  If he is outside looking through those curtains, how does he smell cleanliness or see any detail beyond the flowers?  Which is imagined—how someone outside the room might envision it or how someone in the room might see all the particulars described?

I have a way to answer these questions—this poem is about an affair.  The room is a getaway.  The key is phallic.  That immaculate white bed awaits tumbling.  And though no one outside that window could imagine the lie, what happens when afternoon wanes changes everything, unlocking an entirely new life.

So I’m left with a big question—does the poem tell this story or do I?

Visiting Bloglily this week, I encountered her questions about flash fiction, stories that use 500 words or less, and I began to think how few words a story might require.  With the right words and an active imagination, could three words be a story—could one word?  I’m not suggesting we replace art galleries with index cards reading, “A man on a horse in the Alps” or “A block of blue in a field of black,” but what’s more important, the thing or our mind’s reading of it?

Put another way, what are we doing when we listen to music, hearing the notes or making the connections between them?

My family’s silly statements in the wake of the L are only stories if listeners supply what’s missing. Authors deserve credit for coming up with evocative detail—that’s their art—but perhaps they deserve more credit for what they omit.

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Filed under Chicago, CTA, Essays, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Home Life, Showing and Telling, Thoughts, William Carlos Williams, Writing

Clark and Division

“Doors open on the left at Clark and Division.”

Something strangely comforting arrives in the CTA’s recorded message telling which doors I should expect to open.  I already know, of course.  The CTA voice speaks so soothingly often that, even sitting in my living room, I could tell you. And who needs to know what door opens? Being an urbanite, I’m quick enough to react to whatever breach appears and make it look like no event.

But the voice reassures me, pronouncing its truth so confidently my gratitude swells every time.  “Thank you,” I think, “something is certain.”  Say what you will about unseen trees falling in anonymous forests, those doors open on the left.  Even when no one is riding the car, in the absolute dead of night, the voice intones its declaration. I can hear it in my head.

“Doors open on the left at Clark and Division.”

Sometimes I say the words inwardly when I need an anchor, when nothing in the world seems unquestionable. In the face of life’s most insulting assault, in the middle of the murkiest ambiguity, after the weariest, most foolish errand, I know what will happen, what has happened, what may be happening right this second at Clark and Division.

Really, the voice only needs to say “left.” On the CTA, as with most of the rest of the world, the right is ordinary and left extraordinary.  So—after so many stations of right, right, right—the voice seems to celebrate its one allowed variation. Doors don’t open on the right this time, no sirree, and the voice brightens with broader implications—you may feel down on your luck or locked in the longest streak of unrelenting mishap and still, occasionally, doors may open elsewhere.

It’s all you can do to keep from repeating the message. If you could turn to your neighbor on the train and whisper comfort, “Doors open on the left at Clark and Division,” you might do so much good in the world.  Picture fellow passengers nodding resignedly, “Yes, yes” they might say, “Isn’t it wonderful. Left, left at last.  Clark and Division.”

Someday I hope to shake the hand of the Author, the voice tendering its glimpse into a surer world where all doors—left and right—are known, where we might expect destinations to be revealed, promises to be kept, and any surprises to be gentle and kind.

Remember, “Doors open on the left at Clark and Division.”

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Filed under Chicago, CTA, Essays, Hope, Meditations, Urban Life, Work