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Published: Fri Oct 15 1976
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
The Last Subway System

You can call it subway underground or whatever you like, but it spends as much time above as below. When it plunges from the El with its cargo of advertisements and graffiti it doesn’t have to think what it’s called, and consequently has no doubts and cannot get bored. But one day it did start to think of its routine, and its misleading name. (Do you remember the story of the obedient anarchist who, after many plantings, on one operation began to think? His steps slowed as he ran off until he came to a halt. The explosion ripped him apart).

On this day the subway, knowing nothing outside and hence distrustful, stepped inside a coach and settled down to see what would happen. It didn’t just want journey—it wanted transportation. Even though its ride was on its own coattails.

“Recuerdos Felices del Amistoso Don Q.” There is the splashed blue Carib night given stature and intensity by the draped palm-frond. There is the pig-bite crescent moon about to slip on its tail behind the pole-star Don Q, re-emerging to the right on the rim of a giant ice-filled glass as a round lemon slice. A passage of weeks and genres. From giant bottle to giant glass there has been decandescence and deliquescence of the moon. The moon is a morpheme and each sac of cold yellow juice, spokes of the moon, belongs to Morpheus; for he it was enticed the slender lady from behind her transparent thin shelter to take the dream-risk of the open glass, night the devourer and all.

The names add another dimension: Satan, Pollo, Rico. Though they are real names they are not too real. The subway, embarrassed at its grime and filth, let its eyes drop from Don Q, curled itself up protectively and its eyes met the names. At first they blocked him from transcendence. Fortunately, however, his eyes had already been meddled with (speed, wind, constant alteration of light and dark), and the swirl and dash of the spray-cans’ work took on an enticing quality: in particular, the peculiar verve of the elbows in those ‘ll’ shapes captured his imagination. It found itself smiling, for it was coming to realize that it would not have to seek far elsewhere for relief from all the archetypes and predictable expectations it lived with each day (light/dark, tunnel/emergence, stop/start, straight lines disappearing, and so on). It could change its expectations (for, as the poet said, a new world is only a new mind), revolutionize its escape (though it didn’t expect too much from a revolution).

Of course the subway didn’t think about the matter in this highly sophisticated way, you understand. It only seems so to the historian. It is obvious that, in analyzing deviant behavior, one has to compose reasons as well as discover them. We shall never know its real reasons. One might develop this idea of altruistic revolution, though not as far as rebirth, for then it would have been back with damned eternals. A fellow historian of this period has said that it was a quasi-sempiturnal rehash of the diurnal into an indeterminate turning-in on the self; letting the self carry its freight without being embodied in a whole system; letting it look at its own component walls which, although embodying principles of aesthetics not dissimilar to the principles the subway repudiated, are nevertheless a change, a refreshment, a relocation of vision—one might say, Levi-Strauss for Aristotle, structuralism (choses a penser) for mimesis (pas de probleme; beginning middle and end). The whole system carried inside one of its component parts, and being reabsorbed by that part. Or not, depending on how you look at it. At any rate, it is a new kind of eternity.

Be that as it may, in the enchanted world of the coach it was inside part of itself, and going deeper. Clearly, the only rational thing to do in such a situation (whether willed or involuntary. The act did not have to be willed, and anyhow, where does one draw the line? Besides, no such act can be regarded as voluntary since it is absurd and therefore insane), is to have no reservations and act out whatever the body has assumed. One’s action must always be taken to the farthest consequence, otherwise one is for ever in doubt. Having taken one step, how do we know we can walk until we have taken a hundred? How do we know we can walk until we can run?

Therefore the subway, in its raid on new motives, reached up to a branch of the feathery blurred palm and heaved itself with a jangle of lines stations signals transit police muggers token booths phlegm gum broken gum machines cock crotch cunt and tit grabbers, right between glass and bottle, and sat there, La Gioconda, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, or any other myth (King Arthur, Razpuntel, The Lone Ranger, The Charge of the Light Brigade), that could have no possible connection with the New York Public Transit System. It sat, self-satisfied and not a little smug, letting the crescent moon slip under its feet to become the full lemon segment of the glass about to be sipped daintily by Satan Pollo and Rico. Its Cheshire smile could be seen far into the Carib night, till it tipped over the horizon.


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Brian Swann has published many books in a number of genres: poetry, short fiction, children’s books, translation, and Native American studies, including Words in the Blood: On Translating Native American Literature (University of Nebraska Press, 2011) and his most recent poetry collection, In Late Light (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). He lives in Manhattan and Vega, New York. (updated 10/2013)

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