April is National Poetry Month, and here in Tablet, all through the month, you will find weekly poetry features, with new poems and reviews. We are going to kick off the month with Sean Singer’s Today in the Taxi (Tupelo Press), which won this year’s Jewish Book Award in the poetry category.
Today in the Taxi is a collection of prose poems, narrated by a cab driver. The poems tend to include a mixture of storytelling and reflections—literary, philosophical, and spiritual. On the one hand, the poems feel grounded in personal experience, and indeed, Singer writes on his website: “I drove for nearly six years, from 2014 until 2020, working as an independent contractor for ride sharing companies like Uber, Lyft, Juno, and Via.” At the same time, within the poems, the persona of the driver is completely veiled: We do not have any indications as to his name, age, or personal history. We don’t know where he was born and where he grew up. We don’t know where he lives and whether he has a family. It is clear that the narrator is an intellectual engaged in decidedly blue-collar work, and yet, there isn’t, at any point, a contemplation of the resulting class tension. Instead, the narrator is watching himself and his passengers from afar, with a keen eye and curiosity and also with detachment that at times borders on alienation, which is reinforced by his constant evocation of Franz Kafka, who, of course, was the paradigmatic example of a writer with a fraught relationship to his work life.
Unlike Kafka, however, Singer does not seem to complain. Although he doesn’t gush with pride in his work, there is nevertheless a constant sense that something momentous is happening to him. “I moved the city around the city,” he writes reflecting on one evening. And, to avoid the tedium, he constantly changes gears. For instance, encountering one exceptionally difficult customer, he contemplates the act of driving as a metaphor for psychological underpinnings of an interpersonal encounter: “After a while driving eight hours a day, the driver and the car become one. It is not unlike being a person—moving forward on a one-way that is irreversible and pre-determined. I instinctively compute the spaces around the car and move faster—mirror in the mirror—then only briefly letting my eyes meet his eyes.”
To give you a taste of Singer’s work, we are featuring two poems from the collection. In “Keyhole,” within the span of three sentences, the narrator moves from driving to aesthetic to spiritual experience, drawing an explicit line between the three. “Peace of Mind,” a fairly simple anecdote about a passenger, stressed about being late to work, turns into a contemplation on interiority. In this poem, Kafka may point to the ultimate inability to communicate the true richness of our inner worlds, and yet, in a roundabout way, that is precisely what the narrator of this memorable book manages to achieve.
Yesterday in the taxi I thought about how the job is full of contradictions. I’m both stationary and moving, looking forward and responding back.
When Jacqueline du Pré walked on stage, she couldn’t feel her fingers and she couldn’t open her cello case. She didn’t know what sounds were going to come out or how she’d find them.
A silhouette moved across the dark sky, with its coral streaks, and glowed into silver sawdust. In its depth the blood of paradise.
Peace of Mind
Today in the taxi I got a fare on Main Street and Front Street in DUMBO going to Madison Square Garden. She got in and said, “I’m so late! Today might be the day I get fired!”
We reasoned with the movement of the potholes, the people and things coming from all directions.
The bridge had its iron sounds and brown loneliness, the pikes of waves on the East River, and the solid axe of wind.
I got her there on time and she tipped me $20. “This is for you my friend.”
Kafka interjects that The inner world can only be experienced, not described.
Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).