Will (neat thing about the interwebs: not knowing people, you still begin to refer to them by first names, as if you knew them) had a scary run-in with a driver the other night while riding home on Fourth. Please read his story, but his encounter seemed to speak to a poem I came across the other day. It’s by Mark Doty, and comes from Doty’s recently published Fire to Fire. The poem is called “Citizens” and speaks, at least in part, to how we find meaning in our lives. Will’s written about why he bikes, and my sense – without talking to him at all – is that biking is very much a civic (civilizing?) act. And the moments of shock and violence like the other night really challenge that.
But without further ado:
The light turns and I’m stepping
onto the wide and empty crosswalk on Eighth Avenue,
nothing between the white lines but a blowing riffle
of paper when this truck –
all unnecessary red gleam – roars on the avenue from 20th,
the driver turns his wheels inches from my knees
even though I jump back
out of the way, and before I’ve even thought I’m yelling
what are you doing, act like a citizen
though it’s clear from the face
already blurred past me he’s enjoying this, and I shout Asshole
and kick at the place where his tire was with my boot.
If I carried a sharp instrument
I could scrape a long howl on his flaming paint job
(just under the gold and looming logo: DEMOLITION)
and what kind of citizen
does this thought make me, quivering and flummoxed
by contradictory impulses: to give a speech on empathy
or fling my double latte
across his back windshield, though who knows what
he might do then. He’s stuck in traffic and pretends
I’m not watching him looking
in my direction, and people passing doubtless think who is
this idiot fulminating to himself,
or probably they don’t;
they’ve got trouble of their own. Here’s a story:
two pilgrim monks arrive at a riverbank
where an old lady’s weeping,
no way to cross, and though they’ve renounced
all traffic with women, one man hoists her on his shoulders
and ferries her over the water.
Later his friend is troubled: How could you touch her
when you vowed not to? And the first monk says, I put her down
on the other side of the river,
why are you still carrying her? Midday’s so raw and dirty
I can’t imagine anyone here’s pleased with something just now,
and I’m carrying the devil
in his carbon chariot all the way to 23rd, down into the subway,
rolling against the impersonal malice of the truck that armors him
so he doesn’t have to know anyone.
Under the Port Authority I understand I’m raging
because that’s easier than weeping, not because I’m so afraid
of scraping my skull
on the pavement but because he’s made me erasable,
a slip of a self, subject to. How’d I get emptied
till I can be hostaged
by a dope in a flaming climate-wrecker? I try to think
who made him so powerless he craves dominion over strangers,
but you know what?
I don’t care. If he’s one of those people miserable for lack
of what is found in poetry, fine.
It’s not him I’m sorry for.
It’s every person on this train burrowing deeper uptown
as if it were screwing further down into the bedrock.
Heavy hands on the knees,
weary heads nodding toward the floor or settling
against the glass. When did I ever set anything down?
“I try to think who made him so powerless he craves dominion over strangers…”
Thank you so much for such a marvelous and deeply resonant poem. Wow. I’m speechless.
I don’t know, it’s weird how I came across that poem. I found the book Monday morning and read the poem the first time; then I was reading your story last night and then turned back to the poem without really thinking much about it. And reading it that second time, that dilemma the speaker in this poem faces, of how to confront and respond to his own fear that this other person might be actually a bad person (that we want, most of us, to think that most other people are a decent enough sort), the dilemma the speaker faces of how to put into words his own problem against the fear that the people around him won’t care… I dunno. I thought a lot about your story. Ride safe.