Flight from Manhattan

Metropolitan Life
       The Social Contact       On the Longing for a Cigarette       The Reprieve     

Flight from Manhattan
     The Buddhaphone       Urbanity 
      Among Commuters   

At the Suburban Station
        Hopper's "Gas," 1940        Mirror       Taking the Plunge

"Metropolitan Life" originally appeared in The New Yorker under the title "The Report"; "Flight from Manhattan" in Exquisite Corpse.


Metropolitan Life

In my office building there are four ranks of elevators.
Lobby captains, the idle brass of automation, stand
ready for the nothing that usually occurs,
liveried and grand,
as if I were the guest, they the waiters. at what strange banquet, pray?

There are others. We go up in a pensive speechless cluster,
swung up in the humming air. The elevator is impatient,
closing its rubber-lipped doors quickly after
each of us has left – sent,
delivered to our proper floor,
to open our own black door.

I open my own black door, walk in feeling rather dapper,
feeling at home almost, master in that cubicle,
free enough to sit and finish the morning paper,
and wheel my swivel to the window where the flat skyscraper
is half of what I see.

Two-thirds of the other half is equally flat and tall.
Hundreds of windows and a continual repetition
of straight lines and the buildings are interchangeable.
The miscalculation of the sky stands out, blue, against that wall --
the park, a gap of green.

Tell me whether, when you, when you look out on such a scene,
the windows all the same and each repeating the same hard gaze
that yours repeats to them, you too feel there must be one
behind which stares a face
and sits a body in all ways like your own, that turns now as you turn.

I turn to work, to do what others in my building do.
I hear -- through walls that are thin, dun, easily removable --
others at work, as perhaps I am intended to.
Perhaps it makes us feel
as one—this listening, being listened to—
although we rarely meet.

We see each other in a corridor. The smiles come.
Ride up together to another floor. What is there to say?
We live together, minor, in a gigantic home.
We criticize. We stay. It is a world within a world for some.
For most, security.

And yet on evenings when I stay till ten, almost alone,
saunter the halls and pay the automat that, hit, spits coffee
in a cup—there’s a high-pitched, keen, whistling overtone
as elevators, empty,
their affable, bland music playing on, rise in their shafts and fall,

ecstatically mechanical, as if, if that place
had a spirit, it rode there singing in the emptiness.

© Jon Swan

The Social Contract

God knows why you should pick on me
to save your soul from dissolution here.
But I have seen your forward grin become
a signal of distress as you attempt
to fathom what I, a stranger, make of you.

I shall, accordingly, provide a smile
which you may take to mean that we have met
and that I do, indeed, recall your face;
while I, in turn, interpret your relief
to mean that I am someone in your eyes.

© Jon Swan
On the Longing for a Cigarette
(suggested by Rutger Kopland’s Over het verlangen naar een sigaret)

Dismissed from the forecourt of heaven
for being unable to provide a light!
Who could have guessed they smoked
up there, while we, for our sins, quit,
and spent all those years longing
for a cigarette.

Just the smell of the tobacco as you opened
the pack, foretaste of solace, the jolt
of the first inhalation, the cloud
in the mouth, holding it in, letting it
stream slowly out through your nostrils,
the blue smoke

of the first cigarette, and a whole pack to go!
The sense of risk, the half-buried awareness
that you’re killing yourself, which confers
its specific gravity on the ritual of
inhaling and exhaling the cloud
in your mouth

instead of simply taking a breath. The gravity
is that of an actor playing the dual role
of suicide and mourner. You’re the author
of this drama and it holds you in thrall,
but you won’t be around for
the curtain call.                

© Jon Swan

The Reprieve

When I worked in New York all those
years ago, the office of diminishing returns
to which I reported wasn't exactly in
the bowels of the city, though more often
than not that's the impression one got.

The lungs of the city where one could
remove the jacket and loosen the tie
(this was years ago, remember) and
inhale and exhale as if reprieved by
the governor of green thoughts were

a stone's throw away through glass walls.
"I love the way people enjoy parks here,"
said my wife who arrived from Holland
believing there were no trees in the city
and in the course of time brought the children

one by one to see the unbelievable trees.
That was then of course and now is now
and never the twain shall meet as we know,
unless walking hand in hand in the green
thought preserved in the heart of the city.

© Jon Swan


Flight From Manhattan


Easier said than done to turn the key
and escape the city

in a red car on which, wheelbarrow-like,
so much depends you take

a deep breath entering the West Side
Highway-traffic headed

north, edge, blinking, into the thick of cars,
big, solider than yours,

escaping, trying to escape the city
that sets the pace we

are quick to adopt, seeking advantage, gain,
lead car in the fast lane,

slowing only at the top of the hill
to pick the gate, pay toll,

floor it again over the bridge, the view
north -- river, cliff -- seen too

quick to see, hold, pose for the picture, gone,
like the whole of Manhattan.


Somewhere up there in the high-rise blur,
Henry Hudson, turning green,
overlooks his urgent river.

Below the Half Moon's hapless captain,
another river runs
smoothly, signaling each change of lane,

through upscale Riverdale, then turns
to flow north. Thwarted by toll
booth and changing lights, the pace slackens,

picks up, each twist in the Saw Mill
taken faster until the speed
at which we now travel --

in full flight or spate, side by side,
anxiously eyeing each other,
pressed from behind, pressing ahead --

seems mindless, and deadlier
than was our intention,
although there have been no casualties so far.

It is a race each, ultimately, will win
simply by arriving home,
in one piece, once again.

But it becomes a race against time,
running out, leaving us free
to see nothing as we flee from,

pursued by, the invisible city --
this paymaster despot
against whom we thought to mutiny.

© Jon Swan

The Buddhaphone

There are people inside
you waiting in line

to meet the real you.
It’s a long queue.

Some have waited so long
they’ve fallen asleep.

One is dreaming he’s found
you at last. His shaking

wakes you in time
to answer the phone:

the Buddha reminding you
you are not at home.

© Jon Swan



A typo sets the mood for participants
in the coming urbane apocalypse.
They dress for the occasion.
They groom themselves.

They study a composed image
in the penthouse lobby mirror
while waiting for the elevator
to rise to their height.

They enter and exit the box
with a slight strut. The fall
to the polished hall
is gradual. There is no preparation,

no pulse-quickening score, for
what happens next. The doorman
wearing a bib of blood
pitches forward, opening the door

on a scene straight from a movie:
so many dead – appalling!
appalling! -- and tall buildings
tipping their hat before falling.

© Jon Swan

Among Commuters

In the night in the train pulling out of the city,
standing in the swaying club car, drinking with others
whose faces are too familiar, whose names one does not need to know,
looking out of the grubby, pocked, three-star window
at the finale of a sunset, the long clouds the color of rust,
at rubble and tenement, at billboards that advertise space,
at space, one feels, or may feel, that at long last
one is escaping what?

Click of wheel assures you that you are leaving, leaving,
that on earth as in heaven flight is still possible,
that the half-seen faces staring from windows into the summer night,
enduring the noise of your elevated passing,
will slip from your mind even as they slip out of sight
like a drowning crowd in another forgettable movie,
that you can shed the daily skin of your existence
by being thus transported.

But the sun sinks and around you the faces flare,
ruddy as they celebrate the day’s end,
the irresponsible interval between office and home,
between the pressure to produce and the pressure to relax,
to be attentive and loving: another man.
Through dark country now we move between our selves,
as the train moves, reluctantly, as if it had too often
reached its destination.

© Jon Swan

At the Suburban Station

The men are still laughing as the train slows.
Then they put their hats on.
Their hats cast shadows over smiling faces.

Down the long aisle the men shuffle slowly
to a heavy door
which each holds open for the one behind.

I watch a succession of hands
reach out, hold for a moment,
then slip away.

I think of the long step down
into the wifely night
that welcomes each man home.

© Jon Swan

Hopper’s “Gas,” 1940

Pegasus the flying horse
advertises Mobilgas

Ed Staples’ son in vest and tie
beneath the sign and a blue-green sky

attends the pump It’s twilight
not a car in sight He waits

knowing that no car will come
At his back the pinewoods loom

Light that fills the station spills
from door and windows

How could Ed Staples’ son have guessed
the darkness would come on so fast?

* In his Record Book, beneath a sketch of the scene, Hopper describes the solitary figure as
“Son of Capt. Ed Staples burnt in train wreck returning from Cleveland Mus show”

© Jon Swan


The erased slate
of your face crying

Wait! Wait! I will
become human later

© Jon Swan

Taking the Plunge
(For Hart Crane: born in Garrettsville, Ohio, 1899, lost at sea, 1932)

At six sharp the machines stop
that cool air in midtown cells,
easing the way through thin walls
for heat stored in stone facing.
Let down, droves push
into the glittering oven
of an August night going full blast,
the sun stuck over New Jersey.
Unreal scenery above: a jet
moving up Fifth;
white breast, head of soot,
gull scanning clogged traffic.
Red switches to green:
permit me voyage, Crane.

Curt twang of bowstring,
the smack of the ax into the king’s heart,
ring of pick against rock,
or even urbane maddening chatter of drill,
to each deed its native music,
while, only now, overhead,
does its roar catch up
to where the jet was.
Innocence lies in distance.
Gulls and poets
stick by their squawk.

Some, though,
I among them,
fishing for change,
step down a hole,
stand hot in ragged file
waiting for doors to open,
sidle to sit disconsolate,
black thumbs
approving a newspaper.
(Vikings Discover America!)
or doze, slumped,
the day’s mask hung on a nail.
Some dive.
Wearing pajamas at noon,
he walks rapidly aft,
climbs up on the rail
(“Thank God, the sea is near,
that’s all I can be grateful for”)
jumps and goes under.

Horizon tilts,
slips under the wave.
Time, taut, runs out,
the loosened halyard, coming about.
Now skip the man
and praise the craft
of discovery, poem or ship,
launched in, outriding time.
Lashed to the ribs with spruce root,
free of the keel, strakes give,
gunwales twist in head seas.
Built to yield without breaking,
to speed well – supple, fabulous animal.
Sow, boar, man, fish,
leaf intertwine
in the frieze carved
on the ship’s stem.
Eyes that stare from the oak prow
raise no “villas the color of stale mayonnaise.”
Gaze fixed upon
gray slope
of the next swell.
Fare well.
Below, red, orange, yellow
fade. Green darkens.
Blue blackens.
Plucked spectrum.
End of the rainbow.

On Dive No. 30 Dr. Beebe reported
pale-blue lights close to the porthole,
three inches of silver, a rose-red flash.
Descending to depths of seventy-two-hundred feet,
he “collected 115, 747 individual fish,”
96 percent of his catch luminescent.
Lord, to shine under such pressure
is next to divine!
And we feared to go under
in Midwestern cities.

© Jon Swan
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