“TRACKS” — poems by Lynn McGee

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

TRACKS: Poems by Lynn McGee (Broadstone Books, 2019)

The New York subway system has recently been rebuked for its disruptive service far more than its inured administrative personnel are used to, and I am glad that I don’t have to depend on it to get to and from campuses in the New York City area, as I did back in the Fall of 2005, when I was working at Nassau Community College in Garden City (on Long Island); St. John’s in Queens; and Rutgers in New Jersey. That was a tough semester, and I had little time for anything other than teaching and sending off several dozen applications for work elsewhere.

The subway system in NYC, as well as the rail system that serves the “larger metropolitan area,” is a form of public participatory theater in which the riders and the workers are usually acting with a “less is more” approach. Tamped down emotions, no matter how intensely felt, are revealed obliquely, as if for a movie camera in which the director has called for a long close-up of one’s face. An awareness of this context can heighten a reader’s appreciation of Langston’s Hughes’s depiction of social space on the subway in Montage of a Dream Deferred. Along with Hughes’s book-length poem, in fact, McGee’s Tracks is the one of the best books to read after revisiting Blake’s “London,” the poem that establishes the template for the modern poet in the ever-accelerating urban milieu.

Many great poets and fiction writers (from Hart Crane to James Baldwin) have made use of the subway to heighten the subjective tension of their poems and stories, but few creative writers have made it the crucial trope of an entire book. NYC-based poet Lynn McGee’s TRACKS undertakes the challenge of recording some of her chance encounters on the subway system; her skill in doing so could easily be under-appreciated. For the most part, the diction is pared down; the line-breaks stay focused on enabling the reader to absorb her “depth of field” approach. These are poems that remind me of Robert Bresson’s films, and there is little in the way of higher praise that I could offer.

One outcome of reading these poems is their implicit reminder of the vicissitudes of others as they ride beside us. “Tracks” are also what is made by animals, including us, as we move across the ground. McGee’s personal losses, including that of a sister who died from a brain aneurism, are not of course visible to any of the people she takes note of on her subway trips, and yet it is the very tension between that the visibility of others in this book, and the hidden theater of her own personal sorrow that gives these poems an imaginative trajectory: the “tracks” delineate a cartography of a city as both as both one’s most intimate companion and most unappeasable antagonist.

This book of poems will not make you want to move to New York City, in the way that Frank O’Hara’s, Ted Berrigan’s, or Eileen Myles’s poems might prove alluring. Instead, you will find yourself looking around at all the ways you move about in any given day, and no longer regard the ordinary as too familiar to record in precise and evocative language. We might think of ourselves as not needing a reminder about the imaginative resources available in our daily movements, but McGree’s Tracks demonstrates that we overlook that which deserves our close attention far more frequently than we believe.

McGee’s book is available through SMALL PRESS DISTRIBUTION (SPDbooks.org) or through her publisher, Broadstone Books.