In Competition No. 2710 you were invited to supply a poem reflecting on travelling by Tube.
Not something, perhaps, that would inspire many of us to heights of lyricism, though T.S. Eliot evokes subterranean travel to powerful effect in Four Quartets. Here he is, in ‘East Coker’, on the experience of stopping in a tunnel, when life itself seems to stands still: ‘Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations/ And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence/ And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen/ Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about…’ And then, of course, there is Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’, which Frank Osen’s entry makes a nod to. His fellow victors get £25; D.A. Prince gets £30.
The last deep breaths, then: Oyster Card,
And magic’lly Hell Mouth’s unbarred.
Here’s all foul London’s sweat and heat
Redoubled underneath your feet.
How many suck and share the air
Low in the bowels of Russell Square?
Or cough their foetid germs on to
The dank tiles of the Bakerloo?
Only the strongest stomachs go
From Walthamstow to Pimlico
When crowds, sardine-like, packed in oil,
Are fused in one long seething coil.
Hell’s lowest circle can’t compete
With all that rots at Warren Street.
Not even Dante’s pen could write
The horrors of King’s Cross at night.
Staring into inner space
Or at a doppelgänger shown
Opposite the grubby place
Where you wait alone, alone:
As the carriage starts to rumble
Do not think of conversation —
Listen to your silent mumble
As you race through every station:
As you pass the time, grotesque,
In an existential trap,
Be an android, statuesque,
And always mind the sodding gap.
Here is perfect solipsism,
People-polyps kept apart,
Everyone an aneurysm
In the nation’s rotten heart.
It smells annoying and the noise is loud,
It sports graffiti, here and there, beneath
Its coats of city grit — and that’s the crowd
Who’ve rushed or trudged to fill this gleaming sheath,
Which takes off in a hush of whirring metal.
Across from me, one glum old gent, alone,
Ignores our black bough’s freshest, wettest petal,
A girl who’s just been jilted via phone.
But when she sobs, his handkerchief is offered;
Her seatmate, who’s been buried in her map,
Says, ‘He’s not worth it, dear.’ A hug is proffered.
We also serve, who only mind the gap
And light her way with smiles at Southwark station.
As someone’s cell phone plays ‘Amazing Grace’
I almost feel we’ve all earned dispensation
And will arrive at some same, better place.
Ah yes, the Tube! I still recall the days
of trips to Town: descent to man-made light
and musty air of subterranean ways
that echoed with the strident heels; the sight
of furtive mouse that foraged by the track
while thronged commuters jostled by the drop;
the wind that fled the plunging train’s attack;
old hands who clustered where the doors would
the carriage full, and yet it filled some more.
None met another’s gaze, though face to face.
My station, but I failed to reach the door:
stuck, nose to armpit, in that strap-hung place.
They’re ancient history now, my Tube-trip tales —
a decade back, I upped and moved to Wales.
At Hampstead where I take the train,
The deepest Tube of all,
I start out relatively sane
But soon go up the wall.
I wait with others of my kind,
A dour, dyspeptic throng
Downcast and paranoid of mind,
For heaven knows how long.
The journey is a hell by Bosch,
A nightmare by Fuseli,
A sweat-and-halitosis squash,
And I must do it daily.
Eventually at Leicester Square
I quit the Tube’s black hole
To surface in the open air
With murder in my soul.
I met him on the Underground:
He wanted ‘just a cup of tea’.
My suit had cost five hundred pound
And hung like Nessus’s shirt on me.
Was this the poor, whom I was bound
To help from money that was mine?
Or was he false, and could be found
Neat, and well-lodged, and supping wine?
Further ahead, there would be more:
‘I have no money,’ they would cry,
And claim on my abundant store.
Some might speak truth, but most would lie.
I gave the chap enough for wine,
Yet still I felt a proper brute;
Whether for his sake or for mine,
Perhaps I’ll spend less on a suit.
NO. 2713: allegory on the nile
You are invited to supply an example of a spiel Mrs Malaprop might give in her capacity as a tour guide to a capital city or famous monument of your choice (150 words max.). Please email entries, if possible, to firstname.lastname@example.org by midday on 7 September.