(Frankfort, KY: Broadstone Books, 2019)
After thirteen years living in Portland, Oregon, my husband and I returned to New Jersey, our home state, so I could continue my career in clinical research at New York University. In three months, we have made a happy new home for ourselves in a compact Hoboken apartment, a short fifteen-minute walk from the PATH Station. A lifetime mass transit enthusiast, I have discovered a new love for the Hoboken station’s distinctive, eggy scent and the expletive-riddled lectures on proper backpack etiquette. It’s a lot to be accosted with at eight in the morning, but I have missed it, and perhaps until a stranger sneezes into my mouth, I’m not likely to complain.
I read Lynn McGee’s Tracks during my first few weeks back on the East Coast and found in it a perfect companion for my commute. Many of the poems are based on intelligent, tender observations along her daily commute on the New York City subways, as in “Subway in the Eighties”:
Windows showed the city’s
graffiti gone viral,
subway cars shedding
their husks and re-emerging
into their eyes, windows
the only porous space:
I was here.
The poem fits in its entirety on my smartphone’s screen and, because I had yet to re-establish my subway legs and therefore couldn’t risk releasing the pole grip long enough to swipe to the next page, I spent my first rush-hour commute thinking about (poetic and physical) compression. In his 2018 essay “Compression and the Elegant Little Mechanisms of Meaning Known as Poems,” Eric Shaffer offers short lines, “high-octane” words, and effective use of context as essential to poetic compression.
“Subway in the Eighties” is especially masterful in its use of the latter two techniques. “The city’s pureed face” is as exact a description of the view out a subway car window as I can imagine. (Re-reading the poem now, as I write this, immediately calls to mind the streak of the station tiles as the PATH slows to its final stop at 33rd Street.) Shaffer suggests that choosing high-octane words is as “simple” as picking words that mean more and, while I don’t disagree with his definition, there is hardly anything simple about it. McGee’s poem is barely more than thirty words and each (think “husk”) is deliberate and fascinating.
The poem’s context (i.e., its environment) is reinforced by its compression. Though the lines are short, “Subway in the Eighties” is actually a single sentence and brings to mind the inevitable interconnectedness of each of the five million or so individual passengers who ride the subway daily. I feel in the structure of this poem echoes of an enormous, anonymous collective, all making their temporary marks (“I was here”) on the same space. McGee’s skillful personification of the city and subway car – one has a face, the other eyes – amplifies and echoes the isolation of its passengers. The city’s pureed face and the scratched eyes of the subway car are defacements – just as a passenger who feels a compulsion to declare the authenticity of their existence may feel “defaced” while lost in the crowd.
Obviously, I could spend a day gabbing about all the interesting nuggets I discovered in “Subway in the Eighties” during my commute. But there’s much more to Tracks that deserve our appreciation: McGee is perhaps at her finest in poems that use the isolation of the daily commute as a conduit for deeper meditations on the metaphorical tracks we leave in one another’s lives. In “Late Night on the 2 Train,” the speaker listens to a subway musician as he “walks his fingers up the oily neck / of his guitar and sings the Bee Gees’/ How deep is your love?”
As if he knows — not deep
enough. I’m waiting
for the uptown express,
having just left a reading
at the LGBT Center on 13th Street,
folding chairs and neon art
in a room where I once taught math,
taping big newsprint sheets
to the walls with Emily
who transitioned soon after,
another baby-faced FtM
in tight T-shirt
and low-slung jeans –
and I didn’t take it seriously enough,
she was male, till I realized
I couldn’t pee in a public restroom
if he were there.
I love how the poem unspools, following the speaker’s train of thought as it naturally drifts from the reading at the LGBT center, the more distant memory of teaching math to Emily before a transition, to her confession that she didn’t fully appreciate the value or substance of Emily’s declaration. The speaker’s craving for her bedtime routine and the mundane reality that she has to stay awake for at least another hundred blocks encroaches on her nostalgia as the poem moves on, in an honest reflection of the drift and sag of a tired mind.
Like “Late Night on the 2 Train,” several of the poems in Tracks use similar techniques to explore or excise memories of a sister who died, too young, of a brain aneurysm. These poems are decidedly haunting and beautiful and, perhaps because the loss is so raw, the sister’s death is explored further in poems that move away from the subway system motif. In “Questions About Her Car,” the speaker has “rinsed [her] sister’s car with hot water / from a hose left lying in the sun, / used a toothpick / to clean between the seams” and drives to school to pick up her niece and nephew:
[…] her daughter dropped
into the bucket seat
next to mine, slammed her door
with the imperiousness
of a 10-year-old, You’re in the wrong
space. Tomorrow, be over there.
Writing about loss has been a poetic tradition (think Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas or Christina Rossetti) for centuries, and McGee’s tributes to her sister are important contributions to that tradition. Her representation of her niece who, typical of a ten-year-old girl, can feel grief and anger and derision and cheek all muddled together at once, is pitch-perfect. The poem later turns its attention to the nephew, Patrick, whose struggle to make sense of his mother’s death is compounded by his having Autism Spectrum Disorder. He focuses his grief on what will happen to her “metallic red sedan” and directs mourners away from his mother’s casket toward her portrait propped on an easel. “That’s not my mom,” he tells them.
McGee’s poems about her sister are painful and, even if not explicitly mentioned, her presence can be sensed throughout Tracks. As the collection progresses, the poems feel increasingly bleak. The characters that animated earlier sections of the book fail to inspire the speaker’s enjoyment of her life in the city. There are moments of surprising joy — as in “Cheers” when a throng of New Yorkers emerge from the subway in the “hungry month” of February:
[…] tired gods
hauling diaper bags, briefcases,
babies swaddled snug as larvae,
this migration efficient till someone
in bulky mitts fumbles a steaming
bucket of chicken legs and pigeons
descend to peck at the meaty pins
rolling across the intersection.
Cars stop, drivers watch.
A yellow cab slows for a light,
skids on ice as birds laconically
disperse and one of them is hit,
mid-takeoff — it skims the ground,
pumps its wings, as if underwater,
then bursts through the surface,
and we cheer.
It is this version of McGee’s New York City that I enjoy most and feel so fortunate to return to. There is a long tradition of pigeon-holing New Yorkers as neurotic and unfriendly — it’s impossible to smile and say hello to the hundred people crammed into the same car, damnit! — but that tradition is uncomplicated and false. McGee’s poems hone in on the ordinary moments that elevate the city and its inhabitants to that extra-something special and demonstrate an emotional dexterity so vital and emblematic of its inhabitants. I’m grateful to have had such an exceptional book welcome me back home. (Yeah, I know I live in Jersey.)
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Lisa Grgas is the Supervising Editor and Associate Poetry Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Adroit Journal, Luna Luna, Fractal, and elsewhere. She lives in Hoboken, NJ.