A few months before Mary Austin Speaker moved away from New York, her city of many years, she started writing poetry on her train commute across the Manhattan Bridge. The result, called The Bridge, is emblematic of Speaker’s buoyant, radiant poetry, at once involved in a community—in this case the community of commuters in a given random subway car—and full of the lonesome individuality of a restless traveler. Speaker, who is well known for her design and editorial work over the last decade, gathered these train-born lines and arranged some of them into a sequence of poems, or maybe it’s a single long poem, that must rank as one of the most interesting, sustained poetic meditations on the rails in English. A tradition that includes Dante Gabriel Rossetti, C.S. Giscombe, Kai Carlson-Wee, and many others. And in Speaker’s case it’s a lyric of public transportation, too, in the vein of another great New York poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Commuters, caught in the “diurnal wretchedness” of repetitive laboring days, are in Speaker’s work rendered as fragments of consciousness in a mosaic of the daily intensities of living. “All the windows reflect / on the expiring day,” she writes, and “agglomerated frozen stars / ornament the bridge,” which could be a line in Hart Crane’s “The Bridge,” even if not quite the same bridge he’s speaking of. And just as Crane was interested in the labor in—and represented by—the monuments of industry, Speaker’s work is a paean to work—or rather, workers. Some of Speaker’s labors as a designer find their way into the poems: “I leave / a little of myself / in every book,” a “touchable glamour.” And it opens with an epigraph from Audre Lorde:
Women on trains
have a life that is
the precision of days flashing past
no intervention allowed
shapes of each season
relentlessly carved in the land.
Some of that same style, the blur and elision of punctuation, the layering and flow of image and thought, is rendered gorgeously in Speaker’s language. Here’s how the book opens:
every morning going over the bridge
everybody going in to work
and me as well and me as well
as watching the lit up rocket
take off in the subway
someone named Bill left it there
so we could see what it would be like
to be that rocket
a cartoon is a drawing of an idea
on the bridge I have one foot
in Brooklyn the other in the city
it’s the only time I can see for miles
The poems get some of their mesmerizing energy from the eddies of repetition—repeated lines and phrases—that Speaker uses especially at the beginning and ends of each titleless section. A little like a renga. So there’s a sense of the interconnectedness—the relationship, like train cars joined—section by section, compartment by compartment, line to line, and mind to mind.
If this book is a departure in tone from her earlier collection, called Ceremony, picked by Matthea Harvey for the Slope Editions Prize and full of an almost surreal and sometimes leaping associative iridescence, the continuities, in fact, abound. Ceremony relies on the couplet, another form of linking, and a form that also highlights the fact of relationship, laying two things—two lines—side by side. And what could be more simultaneously public, and yet also so personally felt, than a ceremony? The title poem demonstrates this in Speaker’s spare but multilayered—and gorgeously relentless—music, and it’s a kind of allegorical memoir:
When I was four I was a fire brigade,
a tree trunk, a lamp. When I was five
I was a station wagon, a pogo-stick,
an ice-cream truck. When I was six
ants covered my legs and I wore them
like trousers. When I was seven it began
to rain. When I was eight it stopped.
When I was nine I became a witness …
Mary Austin Speaker’s talent is for a verse that is personal but not confessional, realist and representational, but also abstract, on the knife-edge of the surreal, only to call attention to the glittering weirdness of whatever it is we call real.
JESSE NATHAN: Where does the voice in your poems come from? I’m thinking particularly of the communal-seeming “we” voice we hear there so often. What kind of voice is that, and what leads you forward from the initial impulse of it, the initial phrase?
MARY AUSTIN SPEAKER: It’s funny how as I get older the persistent themes in my work become clearer and clearer to me—togetherness, Americanness. Everything seems to be written through those twin lenses. Sometimes both at once.
I think the “we” that often appears in my poems probably has its roots in the Prayers of the People, a part of the Episcopal liturgy. It’s a call and response, a kind of eclogue that honors the people of the ordinary world, and it’s essentially written in couplets. For much of my life I regularly attended church services, and then I regularly rode the subway and went to poetry readings, and I felt every bit as moved by those experiences as I did the church services I used to attend, witnessing people in every possible condition nearly every day. I spent a lot of time in church looking at strangers, or people I knew, considering what they were bringing to that place we all shared, and how the verses we said together landed with them. Writing in the second person plural is a kind of provocation for me—a testing out to see if it’s possible to articulate an experience that might be shared. Sometimes it feels completely wrong, and sometimes I am entirely not up to it. But I do have an abiding love for civic life, shared spaces (I am a sucker for a public library, a post office, and all public transportation), and finding togetherness, and maybe reverence, in those spaces in secular ways that arise unexpectedly, without any of the pomp and circumstance of church. That was why my first book was called Ceremony. I think it’s vital to notice these little pockets of community when they happen. When I write “we” in The Bridge, I’m writing about the people in the subway car with me. But I’m also writing about being in America, at a point in time.
When I’m drafting, I’m just following a thread of my own noticings, and then a sense of understanding will kind of flash and beckon to me, like something in my peripheral vision. The poem starts with that turning toward. When I was writing the Bridge poems, I’d spend the fifteen-minute walk to the subway trying to come up with a line that could function as both the first and last line of the poem. I’d keep working over the phrase in my head until the subway door closed, and then I’d take out my small notebook and try to write the entire poem during the forty-five-minute ride, to fill in the container I’d offered myself, and solve the puzzle of how to arrive, again, at the first line, hopefully as I was arriving at the farther shore of the subway ride. I wrote two each day, and I did this for about four or five months. The form began, inevitably, to contain whatever I was thinking about in my life or that was happening in the world, and that different thing would find its way to me among the samenesses of the commute, which is why so many images repeat in the book (and some of the same things, too, like labor and memory, and whatever questionable or beatific glue binds us to one another). There is a beauty in regularity, in repetition, that I wanted to honor. Simone Weil said, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” and I believe that. Attention can be honed through repetition, and even summoned by it. In this way I don’t think I ever moved exactly away from religion. I just began practicing whatever I was doing in church through poetry instead. Except with less dogma. I think I am probably an animist, and most poets probably are, too.
But you asked about what leads me from the initial phrase. I think poems occupy a space of deepest generosity, a place open to mystery and agency where you can put two words next to one another and your reader will make some kind of sense of them. In this way you can invent new possibilities, so that poetry is not only a way to usher attention toward what calls you, but also a way of conjuring wild, unexpected relationship. Sometimes it’s terrible, and sometimes it’s magnificent. Always both, and the poem navigates between them, gathering magic.
Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.