Chasing Poets on the Red Line
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By Marc Porter Zasada
I HAVE HEARD that three days each April, the Metro hires local poets to stand up in subway trains and read aloud to evening commuters. I've always been curious: Can they really pull that off? Can they really conjure moments of passion and wonder right there, in the chaos of city life?
So at last, I go to hunt them down.
I want to be exactly on time, because here in L.A. it's easy to miss out on poetic moments. Often they flash right past you on the 110, or hide themselves in sudden fogs along the beach.
And sure enough, at 4 p.m. I'm running lost and late through the crowds in Union Station. I take the wrong entrance, go down the wrong escalator and miss the train, and for a time I stand, let us say, "bereft and alone" on a half-lit platform where the electric signs crawl with the words: "Poets on Board."
But I persist, and lo, at last I find a clutch of eight cheerful bards gathered at the top of the escalator that lets out on Hollywood and Vine. They're wearing bright orange vests and carrying black binders, and one accosts us with high-minded words as we reach street level. She reads: "...in this silence are feelings: not spirit, not sounds." Most of the passengers are pretty confused by this, but the Urban Man appreciates every crumb of passion or wonder in L.A., even if I miss the beginning and end of the poem, and so its meaning.
Now I follow along as the eight poets descend to the rails and jump on a Red Line train like a commando squad, startling the riders. The first poet, a man named Anthony Lee, overcomes his gentle nature to stand up in the rattling corridor, adjust his orange vest and begin to recite. In the roar of the tunnel, I miss the opening, but I hear him read: "...he felt the burning
from both sides, top and bottom,
body and spirit..." Most of the riders ignore Anthony to shuffle their newspapers, clutch their iPods or stare out the empty windows. And me, I have to admit that I lose the thread of his words, and soon I'm distracted by the wrinkles on the hardset face of an old woman just across the aisle. I wonder what her own poetry may be: perhaps she's the necessary grandmother in some fragile household out near MacArthur Park. Maybe she's heading home for a long night of tears.
Meanwhile, Anthony is winding down: "....He gaped at me in wonder,
as if I could save him." Before I can decide if Anthony has read a tale of joy or remorse, the voices of other poets rise down along the car, conjuring from their black binders: "You are there behind a frail wall of wind and sky." I admire their pluck, but somehow, the chaos of the city triumphs once again. And come six, I shake hands with the excellent bards, hop a last escalator and return to the much greater poetry of Union Station itself.
Here I find not just historic archways and echoing corridors, but skinny boys with woollen caps, snappy women with urgent heels, girls in too-tight jeans, and goateed students with actual guitars. A glad-faced blond, 22, offers an unexplained smile. A hairy intellectual gives me a dark stare. And a woman walks by talking to her sad-eyed husband. She says: "Of course, we were both much younger then."
In the lobby, the Urban Man sits happily in one of the huge chairs, and lets the city come to him as it will - unaccompanied by love songs or tragic ballads.
Note: The "Poetry in Motion" program continues Thursday, April 21 from 4 to 6 pm on the Metro Blue Line and again, Thursday, April 28 at the Metro Gold Line Mission Station in South Pasadena. You can read poetry from Anthony Lee at www.AnthonyALee.com.
Copyright - 2005 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved
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