Beneath the burning shoulder of the dawn
the cumbered shadows rise and yawn.
Time for coffee, kiss, and then it's time
to don the workday mask and uniform.
from Icelandic Álftsöngur
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.
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 erased slate
of your face crying
Wait! Wait! I will
become human later
© Jon Swan
A View from Gansevoort Pier
Often in the evening when I worked in the city
and lived in the Village, alone in those days,
I would walk out to the end of Gansevoort pier
with its whiff of a reminder of Herman Melville,
whose mother's maiden name and his brother's
given name was Gansevoort,
to watch the garbage
barges being towed
downriver, the blunt-nosed
barges resembling the landing craft
of a vast
expeditionary force setting out to secure
As night settled over the river,
and I turned my back on it,
and sleeping, saw that the generals had established
camps in the occupied zone where thousands of cattle
swine are confined. Manure lagoons simmer
under the sun, the effluent
seeping into creeks and
rivers, finding its way
into the aquifer deep beneath
the prairie, where once upon a time a retired mariner,
John Marr dropped anchor,
exchanging "the vastness of
the seafor the vastness of the prairies" as recounted by
Melville in John Marr and other Sailors, a collection of
poems and stories printed at the author's expense in 1888
© Jon Swan
A typo sets the mood for participants
in the 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 the prompt box
with a cummerbund strut. Short
is the strut, long the fall
to the polished hall. 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 out of a movie:
so many dead, so many dying,
and tall buildings tipping their hat
© 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.
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
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.
of driver at the wheel
the brain on auto-
matic knows the road
can smell its way
to Dover eyeless
as the traffic flows
The Way is one
though wider at the merge
from single lane
to three blind mice abreast
then four permitting
take-off into inner
space strapped in erect
passengers in a wide-
bodied jet we’ve all seen
the movie before
but each severed head
We’ve all seen the movie
before the shoulders
and wings of stone
abutting the license-
the exits that state
their names in vain each
road leading to a life
unled “twenty years
in the leaves/
the rest on booze” who knows
what gives in Croton
who mows the lawn
who tends the rose
The Way is one until
we climb the final
hill and there divide
It is a way, I suppose, we were not meant to live,
not engineered for, sitting there upright in a car,
driving or driven, hard to tell which, drifting off
in a kind of alert stupor.
Meanwhile, it’s a very real world out there, as they say,
with its anything-can-happen-anywhere landscape.
Capriccio, Heidi’s Motel segue abruptly
to Temple Beth Elohim. A rock
juts up, naked, at Major’s. Red turns to green. The stuck
traffic flows through a world encoded in laissez-faire prose,
slows down by bulldozed Mount Ebo’s corporate park.
You stare at windows whose glass
stares back until the emptiness of the look returned
strikes home – your own uncomprehending, free-floating gaze
enlarged: everything registered, nothing discerned.
Then the light that has held you changes,
freeing you to continue seeking refuge in space,
in something more nearly resembling a countryside
than these irresolute, billboarded acres,
some for sale, some already sold.
It’s only farther north, around Patterson, say,
where the view begins to include a farm with an elm,
a plowed field, that you feel you could begin to see
again – if only we had time
© Jon Swan
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
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
Taking the Plunge
(a wreath for Hart Crane: born in Garrettsville, Ohio, 1899, lost at sea, 1932)
No Bedlamite, shrill shirt ballooning,
as he falls, but his Midwesterner
strolling uptown in suit and tie,
catching glances with furtive eye,
to write ad copy by day as Marlowe's
mighty lines ring in his head until
the clack of typewriters talking
a lost language drowns them out
Malowe and company must be silent
by day, stealing out like spies at night
when shadows gather under bridges. And
he wrestled with his angels and his demons
in the dark beneath the arches
of the harp-strung bridge.
Alone, he strums
the strings, waits for words to come
to rise up from the underground in which
the soaring cables are deeply anchored.
The bridge is bridge and metaphor
that bears a while the weight of human traffic.
A tower built, a span constructed, the whole
conceived, it's all there in his head, but
to span the entire continent...!
In 1932, the country starting to come apart,
the anchored cables, taxed, threaten to
tug loose from their housing buried deep
in Brooklyn muck, bedrock of Manhattan.
He who would make misic of the harp-strung bridge
now, at sea, wearing pajamas at noon,
walks rapidly aft, climbs up on a rail,
shouts, "Goodbye, everybody!" jumps and --
pajama shirt blown falt agaisnt his chest--
"I looked out on the sea" Peggy Baird recalled.
"Like a murror that could be walked on -- Hart's grave" *
From The Last Days of Hart Crane, by Peggy Baird, in Robber Rocks: Ketters and Memeries of Hart Crane, 1923-1932, by Susan Jenkins Brown.
© Jon Swan
Lithe lizards may come abruptly alive,
the long tail moving like a whip lash
until, with equal suddenness, they affix
their thin, panting bodies to a patch
of hot gravel between the railroad tracks.
Settled down, in slow stages they fade,
fade until, lowering lids over bright eyes,
they vanish, like the western horned toad
sitting still as stone, the color of gravel,
until lightning tongue gives proof of life.
It is arid here. Weed tufts wilt between
tarred sleepers. In the sizzling distance
the tracks melt. This is your station,
where the sun stands ready to greet you
and to open the door to the oven.
© Jon Swan